When I joined the corporate world, I was keen on climbing the ladder quickly.
The secret to achieving this was to be likeable, my seniors said, as did books and articles on the subject. But what did “being likeable” mean?
Did I have to appear smart? Did I have to establish my credibility? Did I have to say yes to everything? Did I have to do whatever it took for people to see me as a nice guy?
Nobody knew. So like everyone else, I made up my own answers. Unfortunately, many of them were wrong. And by the time I figured it out, I had left the corporate world and begun freelancing.
Here’s what I learned.
Likability is a polarizing trait. Some think of it as a superpower. Others look down on it because they think it’s about sucking up to people and selling your soul to Lucifer. You’re better off letting your work do the talking.
But frankly, your work cannot do the talking if nobody wants to talk to you. You could have kickass technical skills and solve problems at the drop of a hat. But if people cannot sense good vibes from you, they don’t want to work with you. And your career is as dead as a horse.
In his book Works Well With Others, Ross McCammon proposed a simple method to determine much you like someone: the ‘two beers and a puppy test.’ It’s basically this: Pick a person in your life — a coworker, friend, cousin — and ask yourself two questions:
- Would I drink two beers with this person?
- Would I trust them to look after my puppy over a weekend?
Some people are “two beers and no puppy,” which means they’re fun to hang out with, but you don’t trust them with the important stuff. Some people are “no beers and a puppy.” (They may not be fun to hang out with, but are trustworthy.) Some are “a pitcher of beer and litter of puppies,” while others are “None of The Above.”
This test gives you a new lens through which you can look at your relationships. But if you flip it, you get a new lens to look at yourself as well, to know how likeable you are to others. Pick a person you respect — a colleague, friend, mentor, senior — and ask yourself:
- Would this person drink two beers with me?
- Would they trust me to look after their puppy over a weekend?
If their answers are yes and yes, you’re on the right track. When people you admire like you, they help you become better, not just in your technical and soft skills, but also as a person. And life becomes more enjoyable when you’re in the company of such people.
If you think likability is an important trait, here are a few straightforward steps you can take. (The best part is that “fake it till you make it” is not one of them.)
1. Keep your promises.
This is, bar none, the most critical trait that makes people likeable.
Many people make promises, even the ones they know they can’t keep because they don’t want to appear as jerks by saying “no.” But when it’s time to follow their words up with actions, they come up with different excuses.
They use “get-out clauses” like, “Well, that’s business!” Or, “It’s ok, they know I’m always busy.” Or they bite off more than they can chew and as a result, cannot keep their promises even if they want to.
Such people don’t just let others down; they also let themselves down. Nothing makes us lose credibility in others’ eyes faster than failing to keep our word.
Sadly, this is a norm in the corporate world. It’s a problem we’ve learned to live with. We treat people’s behaviour of not keeping promises like the weather. We know it’s bad but we just shrug our shoulders and say, “It’s the weather. What can I do?”
But when you keep your word, you instantly stand out. Others can trust you to take care of their puppy over the weekend, and make life better for them and their puppies.
Here are five simple steps you can take to get better at keeping your word:
- Organize your work. Keeping track of your completed and pending tasks gives you a realistic idea of how full your plate is. As a result, you get a clearer idea of whether you have the resources to keep a promise.
- See it through. If you’ve made a promise, make up your mind to keep it, even if it means working longer sometimes. When you genuinely want to keep a promise, you often don’t let other things get in your way.
- Learn to say no. People don’t take a “no” as badly as we think they do. So if you doubt you’ll be able to keep your word, politely decline the request and offer a genuine reason. But avoid going into specifics because that could open doors for people to look for workarounds in your schedule and impose their requests on you.
- Break bad news early. You’re only human, which means there will be times when you cannot avoid reneging on your word. Instead of delaying the bad news, inform the other party as soon as you can. Be honest about the reason and give them space to react. When you do, they won’t feel the need to harp on your mistake or hold it against you. Instead, they’ll direct their attention to look for alternatives.
- Expect the same from others. Keeping your promises doesn’t mean others reciprocate in the same way. But it doesn’t mean you have to excuse them. Voice your disappointment in a mature manner because the broken promise has cost you. And surround yourself with people you can depend on, and who can depend on you.
Promises are vital in any relationship. When you can keep your word, your word becomes valuable. You build trust, strengthen connections, and raise your likability index.
2. Give them a precious gift that costs nothing.
You know the person who interrupts a speaker to show off his own knowledge? I was that person.
I jumped into conversations to add my voice on any subject. I broke their flow with unrelated topics. And if someone dropped a name I didn’t know, I would instantly Google the name and say, “Oh yeah! That guy wrote a book, right?”
I wanted to appear smart, but I ended up looking like an ass. My colleagues stopped inviting me to Friday-night parties. And who could blame them? I mean, would you want to have two beers with a guy like that?
People don’t like you when you appear smart. They like you when you make them feel smart. As the old saying goes, people forget what you said or did, but never forget how you made them feel.
The Ben Franklin effect states that if someone does you a favour, they’re more likely to think positively of you because, in their minds, they start seeing you as a nice person who warranted their help.
Franklin noticed this phenomenon when he asked a rival legislator, who never spoke to him, to lend him a rare book. When Franklin returned the book, he sent it with a note expressing his gratitude. That incident turned the legislator’s relationship with Franklin on its head. They went from being rivals to great friends until death.
You don’t have to ask someone for a favour. Just be curious about what interests them. Ask questions and follow-up questions, and listen. Give people the most precious gift: your attention.
You won’t just win friends and become likeable. You’ll also collect novel insights that will broaden your horizons and make you wiser.
3. Calmness is a sexy trait.
The workplace is unpredictable. You can never tell how the day will turn out when you get to work. Yet, one thing is for sure — there’ll be plenty of fire-fighting.
Regardless of designation, experience, or technical expertise, everyone is dousing one fire after another. What differentiates people is how they behave while dousing such fires.
The self-proclaimed “God’s Gift to the Workplace” behave as if the building is literally on fire each time they notice a problem. They rarely can solve a problem, but think highlighting problems makes them special. Like armchair activists, they shout, “Why isn’t someone doing something about it?” In other words, they expect everyone to drop whatever they’re doing and solve the problem, much like an evacuation drill.
Such people whine, complain, and create more problems. And nobody likes to have a beer or entrust their puppies to them.
Then there’s the “Don’t worry I’ve got this” kind. When they spot a fire, such people first check whether it’s the right fire to douse, and then work on solutions that could put it out before they bring it to others’ notice. And if they can solve problems by themselves, they do so without any fanfare.
All along, they remain calm. As a result, people who work with them have clarity on how to solve the problem, which makes everyone’s life easier.
My friend was once talking about traits that attract women to men. One of those traits is calmness. “You don’t know how reassured a woman feels when she’s with a man who can keep his head. Calmness almost turns women on,” she said.
I think the same applies in the workplace. While you’re probably not trying to turn your peers on, a calm demeanour while solving problems still makes you 10X more likeable.
Problem-solving is a test of your technical and people skills, and it’s an in-demand advanced cognitive skill today.
Don’t create problems. Solve them calmly. Keep your head when others are losing theirs. You won’t just be more likeable. You’ll also hone your leadership skills and move up the corporate ladder faster.
4. Treat credit like money.
Everyone wants to feel appreciated for their actions, at home, in relationships, and especially at work. In fact, studies show that recognition is directly proportional to how satisfied people feel at the workplace.
That’s why most people jostle for credit. And who can blame them? It’s natural to assume that the more we get noticed, the brighter our chances are to get promoted or get a hefty raise.
Unfortunately, the desire for the limelight makes many people resort to unpleasant behaviours like idea-stealing, scheming, and back-biting. All this makes the workplace a toxic place, a battleground.
But some people turn the workplace into a playground. They might be brilliant individual performers, but they never show it. Instead, they put the team ahead of themselves and work well with others to achieve team goals.
When things go bad, they step up and take responsibility. And when things go well, they step back and let others bask in the spotlight. They invest credit just like they would invest their money instead of accumulating it and letting it lie in a bank.
A colleague of mine created a remarkable Excel sheet. When he wanted to learn the formula to apply in it, he reached out to Adi, an Excel whiz in our team. It didn’t take more than 10 minutes. Yet, when he showed the sheet to the team and the boss applauded his work, he said, “I couldn’t have done it without Adi.”
All of us wanted to work with this guy, because we always learned a lot, and because he always let our work take centre stage. He never hogged the spotlight, yet the boss entrusted him with the most critical tasks.
Accept credit and compliments. But invest them too. Like money, credit invested in the right places yields exponential long-term returns. You become likeable in the right people’s eyes. And when such people like you, they agree to work with you, and you reap the benefits in your career.
You can’t make everyone like you. Even Nelson Mandela had haters.
It’s better to set a goal of surrounding yourself with people you respect, who’ve already achieved what you want to. The company of such people lifts your standards and quality of life.
And to land in their good books, ensure you’re the kind of person they want to have two beers with and entrust their puppy with over the weekend.
Four simple ways to do this are:
- Keep your promises. Nothing builds your credibility in others’ eyes more than the ability to follow through on the promises you make.
- Give people the gift of your attention. Ask them questions and listen to their answers with genuine interest. This won’t just make you likeable, it’ll also open your mind to new and amazing insights.
- Remain calm while solving problems. Calmness is a sign of maturity, and mature people always command respect.
- Invest credit. Like money, it loses its long-term value when hogged, but compounds when invested in the right places.
Likability is not about sycophancy. It’s about being a genuine human being. And everyone should try to be one.