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Why We Should Let Go of Old Rules and Reimagine Leadership

How not to get caught in “the likeability trap.”

Courteys of Artram/Shutterstock
Courteys of Artram/Shutterstock

The constant chatter about how women do their work and how women lead makes it nearly impossible for women to lead in a way that is authentic to them. Rather than reimagining leadership, we’re asking women to reimagine themselves. That is robbing all of us of the opportunity to create a model of leadership that is more expansive, includes more of us, and yields better results.

 Here is the good news: you are not alone! If it feels hard to navigate these questions of what it means to be a woman, to lead and to be liked as you, it’s because it is! (And if you feel like I am using a lot of exclamation points to not allow you to fall into a funk, it’s because I am!!!!) Acknowledging  that balancing authenticity, likeability, and the quest for leadership might be elusive, if not impossible, while frustrating at first, can be liberating. You’re probably not doing it wrong; the system is set up so that it is nearly impossible to do it right.

This is particularly true because we are in a period of profound change. The #MeToo movement has spurred a widespread cultural reckoning. We are not only questioning those in power; we are questioning the systems of power that have fostered environments of harassment and abuse.

But even as the winds of change nip at our neck and the ground beneath us shifts, how to self-present, especially at work, can actually seem more confusing. Are we playing by the old rules or the new rules? The old rules didn’t apply to all of us; do the new rules? Who is writing the new rules and how do we get a seat at the drafting table? Speaking up and out has brought many women reconciliation, but for many it has also come at a price. Often the public narrative is different from what is whispered behind closed doors. A woman who speaks out against injustice can be seen as both a hero in the world and a problem in her industry. How does this change really take hold? Many of us walk into a workplace every day where it is hard to know if the higher-ups are busy rewriting the organization’s sexual harassment  policy to cover their ass, or if they are really grappling with the underlying assumptions about who is worthy of agency and power.

When it comes to women and work, there are issues that may feel more urgent than likeability, including a gender wage gap (one that is particularly dramatic for women of color), and the culture of sexual harassment that #MeToo is exposing in every industry from entertainment and politics to farm work and domestic  services. Although women continue to reach higher levels of educational and professional attainment,  we’re continually reminded that there is still a big power gap waiting to be filled.

 That gap is most stark at the leadership tier. Women constitute slightly more than half of the U.S. population,  yet we make up less than 25 percent of the U.S. Congress, and hold less than 23 percent of the seats on corporate boards for Fortune 500 companies. Among the directors of the 100 top-grossing movies of 2017, fewer were women than were men named James and Michael. For women of color, that gap is even wider. Minority women account for about 18 percent of the entire U.S. population, yet fewer than 1 percent of Fortune500 companies have those women at the helm. Notably, the 116th Congress boasts a record number of women of color but, at 11 percent, it is still short of proportional representation.

Research affirms that the leading obstacles to women’s leadership are stereotypes and bias. The thing that feels the most amorphous and the least correctable  is also the most pernicious. Among the biases women  face: the double bind between likeability and success, and the paradoxical  calls for gender- correcting performance and authenticity in a woman leader.

The constant trade-offs between competence and likeability have real consequences. These perceptions can affect hiring, negotiations, and career advancement. Some women, those nearing the top, may take on the terrifying glass cliff, assuming that a high-risk, high-reward situation is their only shot at clearing the likeability-competence hurdle. And plenty of women, sensing that they cannot win in a male-dominated industry, opt out and pursue careers in industries that are gender-diverse or mostly women. That can be necessary and rewarding for the individual, but if women keep opting out of the game because the game is rigged, are we forever conceding the realms of math, science, tech, business, politics, and so much more to men? And beyond the consequences at work, there are consequences for the women themselves. In trying to be everything all at once, women are straight-up exhausted.

Excerpted from The Likeability Trap by Alicia Menendez with permission from the author and publisher.

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