The simple answer is yes. Even if you think you don’t like people – and you could be an outlier – most of us need a sense of belonging with the people in our proximal environment. What’s more, over time our behaviour and choices inexorably come to resemble the normative tendencies of those we encounter most often. If you don’t like those people, the unfortunate news is that the longer you spend with them the more you will start to behave like them.
In contrast, working with people we like is good for us as well as the organisations that employ us. This was illustrated in a recent innovative study, in which participants were asked to ‘speed date’ potential team-mates for a project together. After each date they submitted compatibility ratings for their partners.
Researchers used these ratings to create three types of groups:
1) Preferred dates, determined by an algorithm that maximized mutual compatibility;
2) Experienced dates, pairs of people who had worked together irrespective of their compatibility and
3) Control pairs made up of those who had no previous experience of each other.
All groups were then given the same project: to create an advertising slogan for a fictitious organization. Independent experts, with no knowledge of who did the work, rated the outputs produced by people who liked each other as significantly better and more creative than that produced by either of the other groups.
What determines who we like?
To gain the full benefit of what behavioural science can tell us about the effects of likeability in the workplace, we need to expand our definition of the phenomenon ‘liking’. A more appropriate term is ‘affiliation’, which includes people whom we like, but also includes those whom we perceive as being similar to ourselves, at either a conscious or unconscious level.
We like people who seem to be like us. Social Identity Theory tells us we continually classify those we encounter as being part of our ‘in-group’ or our ‘out-group’. Once we perceive someone as “in-group” we favor them above outsiders. The factors that cause us to perceive others as in-group do not need to be meaningful, they just need to be prominent. School children grouped according to their preference for one of two paintings soon show favoritism towards members of their in-group. Indeed, people with the same initials are 11% more likely to match on a dating app and 9% more likely to get married!
We like people who praise us and show they care about us. Hearing praise makes us feel good and helps us to like a person. In fact, the simple act of seeing a positive adjective such as ‘trustworthy’ paired with a picture of one’s own face lights up the reward centre of our brains. It is of course important to exercise care in the use of praise and compliments. People are not idiots. Continual, clumsy overuse of generic praise can readily become obvious, appearing insincere and even disturbing.
How to build likeability at work
Contrary to what these results might seem to suggest, you don’t need to be everyone’s best friend. However, the degree of affiliation you feel towards others – and they feel towards you – does affect your behaviour to a significant extent, even if you don’t recognize those effects. Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to increase other’s sense of affiliation to you without having to befriend everyone at the office.
1. Recognize opportunities to create affiliation: Imagine you are a mid-level manager in the local office of a large company. A senior manager from headquarters is visiting for the first time. When you find yourself alone with that senior figure, he or she asks you a generic question such as “How are things in your department”. What is your reply?
Given that you are unprepared, your initial response will probably be a knee-jerk reaction such as ‘great!’. A common behaviour is to next start describing a problem holding you back. While there might not be anything very wrong with this response, it doesn’t achieve anything positive either. It’s unlikely that senior figure is going to prioritize fixing your problem. Instead, if you had been able to mention an achievement that contributes directly to the annual goal that senior person set for the region, then he or she would automatically perceive you as someone who is on their team and therefore part of their “in-group”.
The biggest missed opportunity for most people is not when they do something wrong – it is when they fail to create a beneficial outcome that was there for the taking.
2. Create affiliation by highlighting a similarity: A key technique for creating a sense of affiliation between you and a colleague or decision-maker is to highlight a real similarity you have in common. Ideally it should be something that both of you are proud of and happy to acknowledge. Salient or unusual factors, as well as or factors important to social identity (such as membership of the same club or charity) are powerful drivers for a sense of affiliation.
3. Mention mutual friends or mentors: Knowing the same people can also create affiliation: in a crowd of strangers, you will feel closest to the friend of a friend. Creating affiliation through mutual contacts follows the same parameters as creating affiliation through a similarity – for example, the more this mutual contact is liked or esteemed by the person you are meeting, the greater the positive affiliation that will be associated with you.
4. Emphasize that you share the same goals: There are few actions that more strongly imply “I am on your team” than demonstrating a commitment to another person’s goals. You may be used to talking about the department’s goals or the company’s goals—but instead, think in terms of people’s personal goals. For example, the simple act of acknowledging that you are aware a colleague is seeking a specific opportunity—and that you are looking out for it on his or her behalf—can be highly effective.
Above all, remember that your objective is to make the other person feel good, happy, and affiliated as well as respected – not awkward, stalked or intruded upon.
Being able to create a sense of affiliation between yourself and another person can help to tip decisions in your favour in a whole range of workplace scenarios, increasing your influence over people and outcomes.