The Working Woman’s Dilemma

As a working mother, I am no stranger to balancing acts. I manage my household, take care of my children, and run a business. I do everything my husband and male colleagues do, in a skirt and heels. Of all these balancing acts, I struggle with balancing authenticity vs. likeability the most.

  Sometime early in my career, I learned that professional meant not emotional and, therefore, not difficult to work with and manage. I cannot remember a specific moment that someone told me this. It was more like an unspoken rule—a general understanding. I knew I was not supposed to cry or express anger at work. I was supposed to be agreeable, amenable, and adaptable. I knew it was safer to hide my dissent from authority figures and follow the rules. Not that I always took the safe route.

Now the rules are changing. There are articles and thought leaders everywhere, telling us the key to success is authenticity, and the way to live a full and healthy life is by being authentic. We also know that social capital is a critical factor in achieving success. Therefore, it is safe to assume that one must be likable to have social capital. We are also told to commercialize our personas and define our brand at work. And let’s not forget the importance of having an executive presence. With all this advice and focus on our personalities, it’s a wonder we have time to work at all.

We all care about our perception at work, but studies have proven time and again that professional women are held to higher standards than men. We have to be highly qualified, impeccably competent, and likable to be successful. These standards are elevated even more for women of color. A new study in The Economic Journal sheds new light on why women have to be likable when men do not. “Researchers concluded that for women, likeability is an asset in all interactions. For men, likeability matters only in interactions with the opposite sex. Results suggest that the likeability factor leads to considerable advantages in terms of average performance and economic outcomes for men.”

So here’s my dilemma. My authentic self does not always align with being likable. As a working woman, which one am I supposed to prioritize? Should it vary by the situation? What am I sacrificing when I prioritize likeability over authenticity? And what do I stand to gain?  I have been grappling with these questions for some time, and I know many women struggle with it, too, so I decided to do some research for guidance, and here’s what I found.

According to the widely accepted Five Factor Personality Theory, developed by psychologists Robert McCrae and Paul Costa, all idiosyncratic personality traits can ultimately be categorized into five factors, Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism, which are measured on a spectrum between two extremes. This model is also known for predicting specific life outcomes, such as health, education, and leadership development. The results of 60 studies on personality and leadership demonstrated the higher a person scores in each of the five factors, or the more a person is conscientious, extraverted, agreeable, emotionally stable, and open, then the more likely they will emerge as a leader of a group. The two traits that were most accurate in predicting leadership were extraversion and conscientiousness. The trait that was the weakest predictor of leadership emergence was agreeableness. I took the FFM personality test and scored significantly above average for extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. I scored average for neuroticism. Does this prove that I am likable?

 Authenticity is also associated with leadership emergence. According to social psychologist Donelson Forsyth, individuals who are more aware of their personal qualities, including their values and beliefs, and exhibiting less bias when processing self-relevant information, are more likely to be accepted as leaders.

Brené Brown, in her book Dare to Lead, advocates for authenticity. She states, “the greatest barrier to true belonging is fitting in or changing who we are so we can be accepted. When we create a culture of fitting in and seeking approval at work, we are not only stifling individuality, we are inhibiting people’s sense of true belonging. People desperately want to be part of something, and they want to experience a profound connection with others, but they do not want to sacrifice their authenticity, freedom, or power to do it.”  I find this passage profound and possibly the most important leadership advice I have ever come across.  

Peter Block, in his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, gives three distinct definitions of belonging. This one struck me the most. “Belonging can be thought of as a longing to be. Being is our capacity to find our deeper purpose in all that we do. It is the capacity to be present and to discover our authenticity and whole selves.”

My research made a compelling case for authenticity. Prioritizing likability and trying to please other people consistently no longer seems worth the effort.  If I spend my life trying to be likable to everyone, I will inevitably fail. I could potentially lose a clear sense of who I am as well. I find it comforting to know that I possess the qualities that are generally deemed likable, according to the FFM, and agreeableness is the least important factor in predicting leadership. I also know that I instinctually aim to be likable, so I am going to prioritize authenticity.

I adopted Sanford Meisner’s definition of acting during my graduate training: “acting is living truthfully in an imaginary circumstance.” I think this may be easier to do than living truthfully in one’s actual circumstances, but that is the meaning of authenticity. As actors, we ask ourselves, “what would I do if I was in this situation?” Therefore, I will be asking myself, “what am I feeling in this situation?” more often in my life. Now the real work begins. Canceling out the noise, advice, and expectations of others, so I connect with my authentic thoughts and feelings and muster the courage to be true to myself.