Are You Competent OR Are You Liked?

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Yes, you read that correctly.

In 2003 Harvard Business School conducted what is commonly known as the Heidi/ Howard Study on gender differences. Subsequently there has been significant research supporting the study’s conclusion, which is that women are perceived as Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 1.09.08 PMeither being competent OR likable, but rarely both.

This double bind for women in large part stems from ‘role congruity’—our expectations of how women and men are ‘supposed’ to behave.

Women are expected to be nurturing by nature, and to take care of relationships before themselves. In fact, both men and women believe that women ‘should’ be nurturing and, if a woman fails to meet our random standard for what ‘nice’ is, we automatically and unconsciously categorize her as ‘not nice’ or ‘not nice enough.’

These ‘not nice enough’ women make both genders terribly uncomfortable and confused. We simply don’t know what to do with a woman who doesn’t put ‘nice’ above everything else, which makes gender role violation’ tantamount to a cultural felony.

Both societal expectation and the internalized need to be liked is what holds so many women back from achieving success, status and the leadership role of their choice.


On the other side of the equation is competence, which often precludes ‘being nice’.

Leadership roles require the demonstration of traits which are generally incongruent with female stereotypes. The groupthink on competence is one who is:

• Assertive
• Independent
• Aggressive
• Self-promoting
• Rational
• Linear
• Opinionated
• Unemotional

Need we wonder, any longer, why so many women have difficulty navigating the jungle gym of leadership? And why they leave?

Women have to make a choice they shouldn’t have to make: Be competent or be liked.

You may be telling yourself that this doesn’t apply to you- that you don’t discriminate, you hold no biases and that ‘other’ people make up these stereotypes. Maybe it doesn’t, and maybe you don’t.

The core issue is that stereotypes and biases are typically unconscious, which means we don’t know what we don’t know, and what we don’t know we don’t change.

Not incidentally, I recently conducted my own research on this subject. Although it wasn’t statistically significant, it was telling. Here’s what I did— is a free site that allows subscribers to vote on the traits they perceive you possess, simply by looking at your photo. First impressions, after all, are lasting impressions. This allows you to select the photo most likely to help you achieve your specific goal (job search, dating, social, etc.).

I have several professional pictures that I use for different purposes and the people who follow me tend to comment on the ones they prefer (and the ones they don’t). I put my follower’s favorite photo to the test to get feedback for my LinkedIn Profile.

The LinkedIn traits they vote on are: competent, likable, and influential. (Yes, I too thought that was curious).

Based on the research previously sighted I suspected, in advance, that people would perceive me to be either competent or likable, but not both.

And the results were….

Across the board I was perceived as competent (97%) and influential (100%). However, only 58% of the voters perceived me as likable. Hmmm…. Solid proof of anything? No. Interesting? Very.

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 3.48.22 PM





So how do you change stereotypes?

1. Pay attention to your thoughts about gender, race, and everything
2. Uncover your hidden beliefs and make the necessary changes in your thinking
3. Identify what sits in the gap between what you think and how you act
4. Teach yourself how to be competent and likable, while being authentically you
5. Know when competence needs to trump likability and vice-versa

Worth mentioning: This isn’t a ‘female problem’; it’s a people problem and both genders need to resolve it.

I’d love to get your thoughts, comments, and opinions. Please weigh in below—your voice is very much needed.


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3 thoughts on “Are You Competent OR Are You Liked?

  1. When it comes to this point:
    -Identify what sits in the gap between what you think and how you act
    I have come to realize that being fused to what others think, fused to “their emotions” and the control they have over you is what was sitting in my gap between what I thought and how I acted.

    Now that I stand on my own, pause and really think about “how I feel” in the moment and do not fuse myself to others, their behavior, actions and thoughts about me, I am more free and I am realizing that I am competent, likable, now my authentically self.

    I have done a ton of work around being fused and not being fused, and I still am, but I am more free now than ever before without all the worry and stress that comes from being fused to others and I am so much happier for it.

    I am competent and liked, and continue to learn and grow everyday. Note – don’t take on other peoples “stuff” separate yourself from it, your own opinion and appreciation for who you are, what you bring and that you really are a gift everywhere you go.

  2. Brenda, Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. This kind of high-level thinking stems from having done work on yourself: who you are, authentically, how you can make your best and highest contribution, and what you’re willing to be conscious about. Enmeshed is another word for being fused and, simply, it means that a person is unable or unwilling to separate their “stuff” from the “stuff” of the people around them. Being enmeshed (fused) is a very effective tool for dis-empowering yourself and everyone around you :). Rather than focus on ‘not being fused’, I’d suggest to everyone reading this that you focus on cultivating your inner genius. Again, thanks for the great comment!

  3. Pingback: Savvy, Sexy, Smart? Not on LinkedIn! | Nancy D. Solomon

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