A businesswoman has a conversation with her five-year-old daughter. "What if I told you that as Mommy does better at work, fewer people like me. But when Daddy does better at work, more people like him. What would you say?" She expected her child to say, "Well that's really unfair, Mom." But what she said instead was, "Well then, Mommy, I would be less successful at work so more people will like me."
In a recent interview, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recounted this story to underscore the importance of a body of research that she cites in her book Lean In indicating "that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women."
We share Sandberg's disappointment in this young girl's response. We too would like to see women lean in further. And we share her view that barriers, both external and self-imposed, stand in the way. But our work with leadership development and 360-degree assessments does not confirm that a likability penalty as women rise to the top is one of those barriers. While, certainly, some individual women may find themselves disliked as they move up the organization, our aggregate data show the opposite is more common — that male leaders are perceived more negatively as they rise, whereas women generally maintain their popularity throughout their entire careers.
Here's how we came to this conclusion. Taking items from our 360-degree feedback instrument such as "Do you stay in touch with issues and concerns of individuals in the work group?" and "How well do you balance getting results with a concern for others' needs?" we created a likability index. (For a detailed explanation of how it was created and to take the quiz yourself, go to our website.) We then analyzed a group of 9,500 male and 5,000 female leaders who participated in our programs in the past three years. Using our scale, we compared their level in the organization with how well liked they were by their bosses, peers, and direct reports. On average, 10 people assessed each leader. Here's what we found:
Both men and women took a hit in likability when they moved from first-level supervisor to middle manager. But this drop was more precipitous for men. After that, the women made up some ground, while men's standing continued to erode, significantly widening the gap between them.
What's more, if you plot overall perceived leadership effectiveness against likability, you discover that the greater the perceived effectiveness of leaders — male or female — the higher their score on the likability index. Coupling this with our past studies, which show a high correlation between perceived leadership effectiveness and such critical measures of business outcomes as profitability, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and productivity, convinces us that people like effective leaders who produce superior results, no matter what their gender.
Just as we found likable leaders at every level, we also see some who are prickly, capricious, and arrogant. As you would suppose, they included leaders of both genders. There happen to be a higher percentage of likable women leaders than men leaders, but the difference in our data is not huge (among the least likable there are 3% more men than women; among the most liked 3% more women than men).
Our conclusion? Likability and success actually go together remarkably well for women. Parents can accurately and unhesitatingly tell their daughters, "Aspire for positions of power and influence, and when you get promoted, it is totally your choice whether you act in a way that will have people continue to like you or not."