Poll: Is Likability More Important Than Competence At Work?

Poll: Is Likability More Important Than Competence At Work?

Do you think it’s more important to be trusted than competent at work? Are personality factors, such as warmth and likability, actually more important than being good at your job when it comes to longevity in a particular position?

My mantra has always been that it’s better to be liked than good at your job.

Do you agree?

Thinking back on places you’ve worked during your career weren’t there always some people who were kept around because the boss liked them, or trusted them, or didn’t feel threatened by them? Weren’t there a few “yes-men or yes-women” from your past that fit this description? Who knows, maybe they were having an affair with the boss, as everyone said.

Beside the point, but you get where I’m going: This is a provocative issue! It can be counter-intuitive, even polarizing. What’s your take on it? I’d love to know.

You might believe your competence in the workplace ensures your longevity there. You may think your ability to remain in the job you love is primarily the outcome of how well you perform it. This is so much more important than being liked at work, right? Sounds reasonable. After all, we’re not in high school: There’s a business to be run and we’re there to build the bottom line!

Nice Is Not Enough
And Executive Coach Caroline Dowd-Higgins would probably agree with you: “Being likable without being respected” is limiting to your career progression because “winning the popularity contest shouldn’t be your goal,” she says.

“It’s natural to say you want to be liked and respected, but when forced to make a choice, I urge you to seek the respect of your co-workers and your boss because being nice is not enough. Being courteous and professional in the workplace is expected, but if one is too agreeable, passive, and overly-compassionate it may hinder your chances of getting promoted or working on prime assignments. Being overly-nice is probably not in your job description, so don’t succumb to the self-sabotaging behavior.”

“Don’t volunteer to take notes or get coffee for others if that’s not expressly in your job description. I know that women tend to be nurturers and that’s great, but do it at home with your loved ones and don’t get too personal at work. If you find yourself acting like your co-worker’s mother or become the company pop psychologist because you are a really good listener, you are being too nice. Get back to work!” Dowd-Higgins adds. (1)

Career and Leadership Coach Shivani Bhagi concurs, adding that it’s easier to be liked as an individual once people respect you for the choices and decisions you’ve made in your professional role.

“Provided I could justify my position on an issue and aimed for a win-win without intentionally putting anyone at a disadvantage in the process, I knew I was doing my job and doing what I was being paid to do. When people respect your decisions, AND if you’re personable, approachable, and helpful, it’s a great combination to have when it comes to stepping up as a leader,” she says.

“If you don’t believe in yourself, respect your own decisions, or stand by your own values, no one else will, and that’s the quickest way to lose respect even if you are a likable character,“ Bhagi adds. (2, emphasis mine)

Relationships Matter More Than Work
Of course, cultivating respect at work is vitally important—especially for women, who should command as much respect as men. But there’s more to consider when weighing trust against competence. Charlotte Beers, the former chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide and author of I’d Rather Be in Charge, argues that relationships often matter more than work. This is the harsh reality, however unfair it may seem, where the quality of your work can be trumped by the relationships you build or break, she says.

“You have to recognize that there will be a moment in time when you will not be able to be represented by the quality of your work but rather by the relationships you have. Make as few enemies as possible; it’s really just good form. Men can compete ferociously with each other and then turn around and lend a hand to their opponent. Here’s the bottom line: The person who is very good at relationships is the one who gets to be in charge,” says Beers.

She adds: “It’s a small world and your boss today may be your customer in five years. Every person counts in our connected world-of-work, and respect is a key element in maintaining professional relationships.” (3)

Writing for LifeHacker Australia, Lui Spandas expands on this, reminding us of first impressions and why approachability is more important than coming across as competent when meeting someone new in the workplace. What’s more, this can have lasting career consequences, she says, citing research from Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy.

Cuddy has studied first impressions for more than 15 years, deducing two factors that people assess when meeting someone new for the first time; namely, trust and respect—and these relate to warmth and competence, respectively:

To develop a first impression quickly people will want to know: “Can I trust this person?” and “Can I respect this person?” There’s a misguided idea that competence is valued over warmth in professional work environments. But warmth, or trustworthiness, is the more important quality to communicate when meeting someone for the first time, says Cuddy, adding: “Competence is evaluated only after trust has been established.”

“If someone you’re trying to influence doesn’t trust you, you’re not going to get very far; in fact, you might even elicit suspicion because you come across as manipulative. A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong elicits admiration, but only after you’ve established trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat,” Cuddy told Business Insider.

Spandas adds: “Some of the mistakes employees make at work because they believe competence outweighs warmth include skipping social events, not asking for help, and exuding an unapproachable demeanor—all in the name of appearing smart and capable. This can backfire, as these individuals may be overlooked for promotions because nobody got to know and trust them in the company.” (4)

Career Blogger Harrison Barnes underscores this value of being well-liked at work, concluding: “Regardless of your job, you are part of a social dynamic inside your organization. Beyond any other single thing – including your work product – the largest obstacle to anyone’s success is a social dynamic turning against you. If your co-workers don’t like you, word will spread and your career in your organization may be doomed. If a group of superiors doesn’t like you, the same thing will occur.” (5)

Weigh In
Where do you stand on this surprising and provocative issue? Do you have a story to share? Please take a moment to share your feedback in the comments below.

1. & 3. Dowd-Higgins, Caroline. Do You Want to Be Liked or Respected at Work? The Huffington Post. Feb. 5, 2013 (Accessed Jan. 31, 2017) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/caroline-dowdhiggins/career-advice_b_2611326.html

2. Bhagi, Shivani. Is it Better to Be Liked or Respected at Work? The Huffington Post. Nov. 26, 2015 (Accessed Jan. 31, 2016): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shivani-bhagi/is-it-better-to-be-liked_b_8656394.html

4. Lui, Spandas. Trust Vs Competence: What’s More Important In A Professional Work Environment? LifeHacker. Jan 18, 2016 (Accessed Jan. 31, 2017) http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2016/01/trust-vs-competence-whats-more-important-in-a-professional-environment/

5. Barnes, Harrison. The Importance of Being Well-Liked in Your Job
Jan 24, 2014 (Accessed Jan. 31, 2017): http://www.hb.org/the-importance-of-being-well-liked-in-your-job/

Are You Ready for a Promotion?
We are currently seeking experienced, senior-level professionals for these, plus many other great opportunities:

Contact us today and let us help you take your career to the next level!

Victoria is an accomplished direct marketer with more than 20 years of industry experience. The Founder and President of Victoria James Executive Search, Inc. direct marketing search firm, she has had a successful and accomplished career, holding senior level sales and marketing management positions in companies such as Citicorp Diner’s Club, Donnelley Marketing. Victoria understands the need for premium talent in the Direct and Digital Marketing industries, is an active member of the Direct Marketing Association, NEMOA and other associations, and holds an Executive MBA from Bernard M. Baruch College. Contact Victoria today to learn how her team of recruitment experts can accelerate your efforts and help you quickly accomplish your goals.


  1. Al 2 years ago

    When employed in-house at agencies and major marketing departments, I was the idiot who believed the old-school thinking that doing a superior job was more than enough. I learned the hard way how mistaken I was. The more I buckled down, the more extra hours I put in, the more the folks who focused on being popular flew past me in the hierarchy. I am now happily freelancing and have discovered that the people I work with like me better this way. They get a top-drawer product and can still do lunch with their workmates who they like on a more personal level.

  2. Judith K Holzgen 2 years ago

    Ideally, you should be trustworthy, likable and competent, but my experience has been that competence trumps likability when it comes to retaining longevity in a job.

  3. Stew Tarkington 2 years ago

    You can’t lump Trust and Likability together. Trust is always #1, then Competence, then Likability. Trust is a yes or no gate. Competence and Likability are critical but also situational. It depends on the industry and management level.
    Obviously I’m referring to successful business enterprises. However, if your sights are on a life-long self serving political future, reverse the order of importance and replace Trust with Corruptibility.

  4. From my experience working across multiple industries, I think it depends on the job and industry. Ad agencies tend to be a bit more “fluffy” and place a premium on relationships and teamwork. The problem I find with that approach is that every grouping of individuals has one or two dominant personalities, so the reality is you have to get along with those alpha personalities, not necessarily the team as a whole. This meshed with poor leadership is what leads to politics, etc etc, and completely change the meaning of words like “Trust,” “Likability,” etc. This applies to most competitive environments. If you flip the scales and move into a hardcore technology role, like server management, no one really cares about the fluffy stuff as they are locked in to what they are doing most of the time, so you tend to see less politics. It all comes down to personality and context. I’ve seen some of the nicest, humble, competent and hardworking people get treated like dirt because they didn’t mesh well with the cool clique, and in reverse I’ve seen complete jerks who couldn’t even spell their own names get promoted to high levels because they played the game and were deemed more “Likable.” Everything is relative.

  5. David Wallace 2 years ago

    I find that trust, competence and likability are the triad of success. When you have all three, you command respect within an organization. Lacking any one of the three, on the other hand, makes you very vulnerable when a company makes changes.

    Likability is not about being a “yes man” or “yes woman” as presented in the article. Very few executives and managers truly like people who are obsequious. Instead, likability should be viewed as culture fit. Do you fit in with the culture of the organization? Does your personality and skill set complement, rather than compete with, those of your peers and managers? Do you make your co-workers perform better? When you have likability in these terms, combined with trust and competence to perform at a high level, your tenure with a company is likely to be long indeed.

  6. Suzanne O'Neal 2 years ago

    I’ve worked in agency settings, a non-profit setting and in a Fortune 50 setting. Each environment is different with a few key similarities. I would combine the concept and importance of trust with ally.

    Trust is THE most important but it translates into how it can be managed and leveraged, specifically: Peers = will you be my ally?; Superiors = will you represent my mission and me well?; Subordinates = will you protect me and grow my career? Since trust comes across as warmth it is perceived as being likable. So, trust = warmth = likability. We never fully analyze our internal thought processes and break it down or categorize it but this is how we are subconsciously interpreting co-workers and how we are being interpreted.

    I have worked with brilliant people who were moved out of the organization because they “didn’t fit”. Doesn’t that translate to “they weren’t likable”, “they didn’t present well, or have that executive presence”, or “they weren’t approachable/friendly”? All this adds up to not being trusted and not being able to be managed or leveraged across the organization.

    I have also worked with some rather dim people who soared their way up the ladder. They couldn’t understand the first thing about the business they represented but they had that “it” factor. They were warm and charming and got along well with others. When they talked (whether they knew what they were talking about or not), people listened and BELIEVED. Doesn’t that translate to “they were likable”, “they presented well, and had that executive presence”, or “they were approachable/friendly”? All this adds up to being trusted and being able to be managed or leveraged across the organization.

    I was taught to work hard, be ethical and do right and all will work to the good in the end — the company you work for will grow and prosper and you’ll be rewarded and recognized for your contribution. The big reveal to me that this isn’t how the world actually works is that organizations, regardless of size, are made up of people trying to either grow themselves, protect themselves, or just maintain themselves. This mentality means that the company mission and the business goals are preached but only followed and reached for only if it coincides with the individuals mission and goals. If those align, great. But, in many cases they don’t align and the corporate culture of gamesmanship and politics win out.

    If I had known all this when I was in high school deciding what to do with my life I would have taken an alternate path. I truly wish there was more honesty about how organizations work so that others could avoid if they determine it doesn’t match with their personality, belief system and values.

  7. Donna Maciver 2 years ago

    The jobs in which I’ve been most satisfied have been those where I look forward to going to the office each day because I enjoyed working with my team. I prefer working collaboratively, and likeability outweighs competence with regard to my immediate coworkers.

Leave a reply to Donna Maciver Click here to cancel the reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

$(document).ready(function(){ $('.twitter-link a').click(function(){ window.open(this.href); return false; }); });