Why you need to be likable at work — but not nice

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The workplace, we know, is social, not just business. For all the time we talk about the need for data, facts, and scientific opinions, the truth of the matter is that business gets done through people doing work. People are not simple and their social interactions — in meetings, on breaks, in the hallway or by the water cooler — vary across the board.

As a result, many of us feel the need to be nice at work. The dictionary defines “nice” as it relates to a person as “pleasant in manner; good-natured; kind.”

Those are good attributes to have, but “nice” isn’t where you want to be perceived. There are too many pitfalls:

  • You get dumped on for work tasks because being nice means you don’t say “no.”
  • You don’t get your problems resolved with your manager because being nice means not being confrontational
  • You don’t get your opinion heard because being nice means being quiet and letting others define issues
  • You don’t get as high a performance review rating because you never got out from under all the work you took on because you don’t say “no.”

What you want is to be likable, not nice

Likable sounds like the same as nice, but it is not. The dictionary defines likable as “pleasant, friendly, and easy to like.”

You can say “no” because you push back on the workload and do it in a pleasant way. You can resolve issues because being likable means you are searching for solutions even though it requires confrontation.

Likable, to me, is the ability to work with differing types of people in a way that protects your interests while still getting things done. Being nice, to me, means you subordinate your needs to that of everyone else on your team and pleasantly go about your business even though there is nothing pleasant about your business.

We want to work with likable people

We’ve all worked with nice people — they are always pleasant in how they treat other people, are always kind — but too often never get anything done.

Not that likable people should treat people poorly; far from it. But likable people get their work done, are approachable, and at the same time stand for what they need in the workplace from their manager and team.

So be careful of the label you acquire at the office. It is important to be likable — but not nice.

    • It is a very controversial post — most people want to be nice and not just likable. This presents a tough choice for people and forces them to look hard at the reality of the workplace. No easy answers here.

  • Nice Person says:

    I disagree as well, you can be nice and be assertive. It’s always the nasty people who get on in the workplace though as that kind of behaviour is rewarded more. Terrible article…

    • But what you just described — nice and assertive — is how I defined likeable. So we actually agree. The basic premise here is that you need to be likeable enough — but assertive enough to also protect your interests.

      You and I could probably come up with many examples of people who are nasty — there are far too many of them in the workplace. But by letting those people run over us by simply being nice and tolerant puts all the stress on you. That’s not where we should be in the workplace.

      That’s why I went with likeable. One needs likeability while asserting themselves at work without being the very nasty people you mention.

      It’s a close, but interesting contrast, isn’t it?

  • […] thought it might be desirable before. However, Scot Herrick makes an interesting distinction in this article: nice is when you are good-natured and kind, but, he suggests, open to exploitation; likeable is […]

  • Word definitions are so interestingly close! šŸ˜‰ Never-the-less, whether the definitions are yours or Roger's, the distinction is important and necessary.

    Going with yours, being nice is often the easy way out of not Being fully who we are… of letting go enough of our power so that we end up waking up each morning wonderfing why life feels empty. It's also interesting how this nice/likable distinction plays out in every other relationship sphere, including love, family, friendship.

    If we looked at nice/likable from the gender, male/female perspectives, the debate would get even more heated! šŸ˜‰

    Thanks for your post. btw, visiting from Guy Kawasaki's tweet and blog referencing this post…

  • I agree you should be likable. Everyone has boundaries and they should be respected. You can be “nice” but you need to know what your limit is.

  • I understand the point you're making and I agree there is a difference between the two. However, I define the two in the manner completely opposite of yours. Likable requires that I get your approval in terms of how I conduct and handle myself. I want you to like me. Therefore, I need to do those things that emotionally appeal to you. Confronting you about an issue may not be a likable trait.

    I view nice as I can stand up for myself in a pleasant manner. Yet, I'm not concerned whether you like me. I think of the biblical proverb that says, “Speak the truth, but in love”. Essentially, it means to be honest. However, I should be nice about how I deliver the message. I see being nice more in common with that principle than being “likable”. If I want to be likable, I may not speak those things which may be uncomfortable for you to hear.

    This has become a discussion more of semantics. Nevertheless, I get the point of your article and I agree in an reverse kind-of-way.

  • You can't be too nice. That does not help get things done. That was a comment from my previous manager who was the GM of a business unit.

  • Candice — thanks for the comment; it is appreciated especially with adding in some numbers to the discussion. Likable and nice are close; no doubt. It is why I defined them in the article first before using them.

    The issue really is “spineless” at one end and “all about you” on the other. Somewhere, there needs to be a balance in a situation between tolerating something as Kate noted earlier and losing your soul because you have not done the right stuff to protect your interests at getting your work done.

    I chose to try “likable” and “nice” because both mean you treat people right, but one lets you stand up a bit more when needed. This is an interesting and hard to have discussion because, as well, all situations are local. How you handle one situation today could be different in how you handle the same situation tomorrow.

    So, no right answers all the time.

  • I wrote a series of articles on this very topic after reading an article similar to your own. I sent out a query and received 36 responses. Twenty-three people agree with you that it's better to be likable than nice if you want to get ahead in business. Seven felt it was better to be a mixture and six thought it was better to be nice.

    What really struck me, though, is that what you said about nice people being, more or less, spineless, is what some said about likable people. I also noticed that the two words were often interchanged. Here's a link to one of them if you're at all interested in what other people had to say about it. (http://www.collegerecruiter.com/ask-the-experts…) I found the project to be truly fascinating.

  • Hi Kate,

    I think we agree that people don't need to trod over others in the workplace, whether that is by being nice or likable. The difference between likable and nice can be subtle and probably not worth the debate; yes, differences can be resolved in a “nice” way.

    While I am not suggesting that “everyone should go about their day looking out for No. 1 in all they do,” I will advocate for protecting your interests so that you can meet your goals assigned to you and the work given to you so that you can be successful. Work is a two-way street and if the street is always one-way coming at you, you won't succeed or be happy with your work.

    And I agree that tolerance does not mean self-sacrifice, but we should watch our work — it is very easy to tolerate one more thing, then another, then another and before you know it, you have self-sacrificed that which is good in your work and the values you have.

    I'm very happy you made this comment — it shows clearly the other side of the divide. I'm trying to describe that point where you need to put boundaries around your work with other people, especially since tons of work is being put on people due to the recession and being told you should be lucky to have a job. It's tricky and this post won't sit right with a lot of people because there is no good definition of when to push back. Plus, every person's situation is different in their job where one case it makes sense and another it doesn't.

    We are a complex people, aren't we?

  • Whoa! I disagree 100%. Being nice does not mean you are a pushover, shy from confrontation and get walked all over in the workplace. Differences can be resolved in a “nice” way. It is alarming to me that this post encourages the “ability to work with differing types of people in a way that protects your interests”. Am I to understand that everyone should go about their day looking out for No. 1 in all they do? Tolerance do not mean self-sacrifice.

    Very disturbing.

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