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  • Simon Boardman

The Unbearable Likeness of Being…Liked

“Can I make you like me? …and even if I could, does it mean I should?”

It seems that we are caught in a permanent dilemma today surrounded by experts who disagree and contradictory evidence all around. We've written about, talked about, and thought about relationships in business, specifically in buying and selling. What these relationships used to look like, and what they look like today. We've examined some of the changes over the years and argued that despite those changes, people are people. In other words, despite all the societal upheaval of the last couple of hundred years – nothing much has changed. Our wants, needs, habits, weaknesses, biases, and behaviors which have developed over a few hundred thousand years don't fundamentally change despite what we construe as profound disruption.

We continue to pull back the covers on the role of relationships in business. An idea we again feel is often trivialized, misunderstood, sometimes over-engineered and other times left to too much to chance. Some will argue that relationships don’t matter much anymore – communication of value, behavioral skills, professional capability, and product benefits carry the day. Others argue the opposite. In an era of crowded markets, little differentiation, and the curse of choice, relationships have become MORE critical as a way of achieving distinction.

To get into this subject, we have to make a few leaps – firstly accepting that relationship do still play a role in doing business. It may be a "different" role to that of 30 years ago (it may not), but a role, nevertheless. Second, that humans must "get along" with one another. As my first boss used to say; “I don’t have to like you to do business with you, but it helps.” People want that stuff to be easy, with minimal friction. Humans generally like to take short cuts – follow the path of least resistance. Unless you are doing something or selling something that promises staggering value, being despised won’t wash.

We’ll accept that maybe the higher the promised value, the more tolerant a prospect will be. An example of this thinking would, in part, explain the awful culture so pervasive in the financial industry. The case of hedge fund Scion Capital’s founder Mike Burry (as told in Michael Lewis’s book; the Big Short) illustrates this point. Him, his fund and his investors made a ton of money betting against the average mortgage holder, in what became the single most significant shift in wealth in American history. Most of the fund’s larger investors who knew Burry also quickly grew to despise him. Making a ton of money didn't prevent them all from walking away from him after they cashed their checks, of course. It's not clear "why" they didn't like him (he is an Asperger’s sufferer which meant his behavior was socially unusual), and at this point in our discussion, it doesn't matter.

The point is that despite all the millions he made for them, none of them remained customers. So even the promise (and delivery) of enormous value can be over-shadowed because I still don’t like you!! In my own experience, I knew two systems salesmen, who rubbed so many people up the wrong way, prospects made it clear that if they went with our computers, they wanted neither of them to remain as "Account Managers." Nothing personal? Not much. This was back in the 1980’s during what some would call the Golden Age of technology sales. These two sales guys were iconic as new business salesman. If you called down to central casting and asked them to send up two stereotypical new business sales "hunters," from the I.T. business in the 1980’s, they’d send these two. Interestingly they both had communication challenges – one was brash and loud the other made it clear that unless you could help on his quest to win the deal, you didn’t exist. The point is that neither of them was going to win any friends, yet both won plenty of business.

Previous examples notwithstanding, if we conclude that we at least need to get along and “win” some friends, it’s useful to know what makes us like one another anyway? There’s an old saying that "people like people who are like they are." So, do they?

Thieves Like Us

Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology and chair of the psychology department at Albright College. She writes in Psychology Today, from Dec 2018 that “It is not surprising that we tend to like people who are similar to us, and there is a large body of research that confirms this. But the reasons why we like people who are like us can be complex.” She goes on to reference the reasons why similarity might increase liking as examined in a study by Adam Hampton, Amanda Fisher- Boyd, and Susan Sprecher, that was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. They list out the following factors:

  1. Consensual validation: Other people who share our attitudes are simultaneously validating those attitudes, which vindicates us, and makes us feel less alone.

  2. Cognitive evaluation: We make generalized assessments of people based on the information we have available. Because we find some commonalities (based on our limited information) that leads to a positive feeling about them (because we feel positive about ourselves), we then assume we will share other characteristics in common, increasing our positive feeling. Sort of a heady cocktail of confirmation bias and a "self-fulfilling prophesy."

  3. Certainty of being liked: We make an assumption (maybe based on reading too many Psychology Today articles) that people we have a lot in common with will like us, and being as we tend to like people who "like us", we kind of get ahead of ourselves and like them because they like us…In other words, I like you because I think you’re going to like me. You like me using the same mental short cuts, and guess what…? We end up liking one another!

  4. Fun and enjoyable interactions: The simple and most obvious explanation from the Hampton, Fisher-Boyd, and Sprecher research is that it’s just more fun to spend time with people doing something you all enjoy. You are less likely to get to spend time with people if you have no common interests. This finding promotes one of the weaknesses of psychology – it’s so obvious that you wonder why anyone needs to conduct a study to come up with it!

  5. Self-expansion opportunity: Perhaps the most interesting and classically counter-intuitive of their findings. The theory here goes that we look to expand our knowledge, etc. and that we gravitate toward (like) people that possess the promise of helping us achieve that. Immediately one would think that we would assume that those more likely to add value are people we share less commonality. They'd open up an entire “undiscovered country” to us. Despite that commonsense approach, the research in this area shows we are more likely to seek out these self-expansions with people who are similar to us. Maybe this is because we don’t know many people who are “dissimilar” (for the reasons stated), or again we betray our humanness as we look for short-cuts and the path of least resistance. It is awkward and uncomfortable to find and get to know people with different interests; therefore, we'll make the best of the relationships we have.

So, it appears from all this that we like people because generally they confirm and/or validate something about ourselves. Three of the five conditions quoted involve us making assumptions or “taking” comfort, and one involves us "taking" knowledge to help expand our horizons. It all seems relatively self-serving.

Vive la Difference

What about the other end of the spectrum, what appears to have become the contrarian view, the one that says opposites attract? According to Lindsay Dodgson’s Mar. 11, 2018, Business Insider article, opposites hardly ever attract. She quotes several studies and authorities who agree, and indeed we quote similarly in this article. The weight of scientific evidence appears to be against the notion that opposites attract, so we won’t spend too much time on it here, other than the following idea. The idea that opposites attract one another might come from our confusion of the underlying characteristics, and frankly again us being guilty of accepting things at a superficial level. Think of it this way: we like people who possess the same traits that we like about ourselves, AND we like people who have greater strength in these traits than we do. For example, we might admire someone who appears to be a confident public speaker while we are not. What's important here is NOT the relative talent for public speaking, but the value both parties place on public speaking itself. The thing we have in common here is the priority we put on public speaking NOT the “being good or bad at it." It’s something we have in common, even though one person might seem great at it while the other is not. Misunderstanding this promotes a superficial view that opposites attract (she’s super confident as you can see from her public speaking, while he’s a mumbling, stumbling fool).

So if I subscribed to the view that I need to make you like me to reduce friction in business (or at least minimize the “disliking” of me) – how would I do it? Here there’s no shortage of advice that goes back to what some might interpret as a contemporary grandfather of emotional manipulation in business – Dale Carnegie. Let's be clear; humans have been acting out their roles, deceiving and manipulating one another since the dawn of man, which is why we might argue that all the new technological and social change in the world makes little difference to how we behave. It’s been hard coded over the last few hundred thousand years, and it’ll take longer and require more change than has happened in the previous 40 years to effect this. But if I wanted to make you like me – how would I do it?

How to Use Friends to Influence People

As we said, there's no shortage of advice here. From Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People" to Mo Bunnel’s "Snowball Effect." Carnegie lists out six principles to “make” people like you. In case you’ve forgotten them, let’s run through them;

  1. Show “genuine” interest in other people. It's easy to be skeptical about this, and it conjures up memories and images of the oily, disingenuous types who try to do this and just come over badly. An old girlfriend of mine once asked me why I thought she liked me. It’s not the kind of question you ask yourself, as you might not like the answer! One of the reasons she said was because I was "interested and interesting." I'm lucky in that it came naturally to me, I already knew everything about myself, so talking about myself seemed too dull. I was always more curious about other people. I’m modest too, by the way!

  2. Smile. According to Carnegie, smiling is an example of matching actions with words. Not only am I saying I'm happy to see you, but I'm also demonstrating it. By showing it I’m communicating they you bring me happiness (which, in turn, will bring you joy) and we can then loop back to some flavor of consensual validation where simply put; if you like me, then I’ll like you as discussed in the previously mentioned study by Hampton, Fisher-Boyd, and Sprecher.

  3. Remember Peoples Names. Less problematic in the whole “can I make you like me” idea. More a sign of good manners. If you pay attention and don’t want to be disrespectful of people who haven’t done anything to deserve that characterization (yet) then the least you should do is remember who they are. Interestingly one of the tactics that “power-play“ people use is to pretend that they don't know your name when they actually do.

  4. Be a Good Listener. This goes back to my observation that people who are good company are "interesting and interested." Serious listeners don't just hear what people are saying; they are "attending to meaning." They don't use someone else's words as merely a springboard from which to launch their commentary and air their own opinions.

  5. Talk in Terms of Other People’s Interests. Carnegie advises us to “analyze” the people we talk to, at least to the degree that we can identify common interests on which to focus. Social media has provided the modern boost to our ability to do this. This goes back to having things in common with people. The problem is that most sellers these days need to be more thoughtful about this. Just going to the same school as someone doesn't mean that much, so if you have something in common with someone that way, think through why it might matter in your business context? What extra value does it provide? If nothing, then it’s just a conversation starter, which is ok – but understand these commonalities for what they are and what they are not.

  6. Make the other Person Feel Important. Carnegie recommends doing this and doing it "with all sincerity, folks." We know that everyone wants to feel like they count, that they bring some value. Carnegie doesn’t seem to care whether they do, or they don’t, but councils us that we should make them feel like they do…and use all (here’s that word again) …sincerity. You can draw your own conclusions here.

Legendary stuff – right? From the Grandfather of Sales himself. Carnegie is almost a God in business, with buildings and schools named after him. We’re playing with fire even contemplating the downside of his advice, but the “how to make people like you” routine, wreaks of manipulation. Here’s an idea, be a decent person, and generally people will at least not dislike you.


In Mo Bunnel’s "Snowball Effect," he devotes one disturbing chapter on how to make people like you…authentically (and by the way – if you have to call it out, isn’t it “inauthentic”?). That notwithstanding Mo goes on to list out "The Five Drivers of Likability."

  1. Commonality. Nothing new here. For people to "like" us, we must share some common ground. Mo does make an interesting observation that having things in common allows humans to use a heuristic (or mental short cut). We tend towards these when confronted with complicated decisions.

  2. Frequency. Regular contact is important. No one has much of a relationship with people who contact them "infrequently." These are the types who do it when they need something. Mo quite rightly points out that we should not sacrifice "meaning" to stay in contact.

  3. Mutuality. An interesting idea, which is about understanding that relationships are better when there is some “back and forth." In other words, they are "not" one-sided. Unbalanced personal relationships are a good example of this, where we have witnessed our friends (and maybe ourselves) in situations that are one-sided. We should be confident that we are delivering value, and confident in asking for help in different ways, establishing that this relationship is not a one-way street and hence the mutuality of the relationship.

  4. Balance. Achieving it in all aspects of our lives is an enduring challenge. The nature of our relationship interactions must achieve balance also. Some more positive, some negative, but always delivered thoughtfully and constructively.

  5. Uniqueness. Somewhat repetitive, but maybe worth repeating (geddit?) Try to make your contact and interactions "different," not just the same old, same old. What he's saying is try to “be thoughtful” in this busy siege we call our daily routine. Don’t just reach out to people for the sake of it.

Useful stuff from Mo, even if most of it isn't that original, it bears repeating. He shares good insight on Commonality and the ideas around Mutuality and Balance. But then he comes to a screeching halt by using a bad example from a guy called Bill Ruprecht, who was CEO of Sotheby’s. I’m not sure why writers and consultants often do this, but he’s snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by using an “exception” as an example. Examples are supposed to be commonly found incidents that serve to prove the point we’re making, so in this context, they need to happen frequently and be easy to relate to. I don't know about you, but I'm aware of maybe TWO auction houses in the world (Sotheby’s and Christie’s). They deal in a rare business and specialize in a small market (the super-rich). This is similar to when people are discussing the much sought-after quality of "grit." They use examples like the cave explorer guy who got wrapped up in his safety line and to free himself had to cut his own arm off using a Swiss Army Knife (or something like that). Gritty? Well, of course. Applicable to the daily challenges most of us confront on a Monday morning, where we need practical inspiration? Not so much.

The Verto Verdict

So where does all this leave us? To remind us to "stay on task" here – the question we were asking is “Can I make you like me? …and even if I could, does it mean I should?”

  • Our first point is not surprising – think about it – be intentional. You might decide either way but discuss the impact of relationships and whether choices here conflict with company or personal core values and vision. Weigh up the values of sincerity and honesty with those of orchestration and expediency. Decide if it’s ok to compromise some of your beliefs to achieve the outcome. For example, if you decide as a company that you want to promote closer relationships with prospects and customers and you can accomplish this with a field sales group close to the customers, then you are inherently promoting the importance of the personal relationship. You might not want to recruit a team of actors, but neither would a group of aloof, brazen, mercenaries serve you well either.

  • You might accept that the higher the perceived value of what you’re providing, the less attention you have to pay to "popularity." If we (again) reference the Sirius Decisions Demand Spectrum, New Concept businesses are supposedly presenting radically new ideas and methods designed to transform a company, which means upsetting the status quo. Here you are obligated to accept that you have to also “upset” a few people. The old saying of “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” springs to mind. The business development teams (whether they’re called Sales, Marketing, Consultants, whatever) must be comfortable making others “uncomfortable” by presenting them a different view of the world. But you don’t have to be obnoxious about it. It's the “new” idea or view of the world that’s supposed to “upset” the prospect, NOT you.

  • So much of liking and being liked is subjective, the eye of the beholder and all that. There are also some fascinating contradictions. If you try to be liked (or at least remove the barriers to being liked) and appear bogus in doing so (you might be being genuine, by the way), you could end up being disliked for merely trying to be liked, and getting caught. We all do business with people we don't like that much. The value of what they do might outweigh their personality defects (as we see them), or it’s just convenient. Another contradiction would be that we respect them because they don't appear to "play the game." They seem not to try too hard to be liked and come across as uncompromising (we all want to be resolute and do it Frank Sinatra style – "My Way"). So, we end up “liking” someone, BECAUSE they don’t try too hard to be liked.

  • The best advice we have here is to know yourself and be yourself. What does that mean? Knowing yourself is difficult, but is a much-prized facet of Emotional Intelligence. The most important aspect of it is for people to acknowledge their weaknesses, and then manage themselves accordingly. At least then, you can minimize those opportunities for people to find a reason to dislike you. A personal example for me is that I know I have an active sense of humor, which can be interpreted as trivializing situations. I’ve learned to manage this (maybe) such that if I’m in unknown territory (meeting people for the first time), I'll suppress my natural humor to avoid risking misinterpretation or being too familiar (you don’t want to suffer from “premature familiarization”). Now by the same token, I am what I am, and I believe that finding the lighter side of situations has many positive benefits, including the opportunity to establish something in common with new acquaintances.

Final Thought

The guy who sums it up best is Larry Weiss. Maybe you’ve never heard of him, but he is the guy that wrote and actually first recorded the song “Rhinestone Cowboy", ultimately a huge hit for Glen Campbell. “There'll be a load of compromising, On the road to my horizon, But I'm gonna be where the lights are shinin' on me." That's what we're really discussing here. How much compromising are you prepared to do to get what you want? How much acting are you prepared to undertake to get where the lights are shining on you? People talk a lot when it comes to subjects like this. They use words like honesty, sincerity, authenticity, simple, compromise, uncompromising, "what you see is what you get," values, "be your own man," etc. It goes on and on. So, with all this fashionable noise touting the virtues of being honest, authentic, and uncompromising, how come we see so many examples of the opposite? Life is full of decisions where we have to contemplate compromising what we believe for achieving some “desired” outcome. That outcome might be a deal, getting a job, or keeping a job. Telling you to be yourself and be your own man or woman is naive…we get that. Can we get where we think we need to go, playing the role we need to play, without sometimes being required to compromise our core values? Probably not, and it’s a question we have to face more frequently than we’d like. Working at being more likeable is part of the act. In business deals, you know that people have goals and agendas. It gets murkier when you’re trying to figure out what they are and why. Even if they’re not obvious, assume they’re there and think through what they might be. Proceed with caution. We all aspire to be “uncompromising," but we all know we’ll probably fit in somewhere between the song lyrics of Frank Sinatra’s "My Way" and Glen Campell’s "Rhinestone Cowboy." You have to decide just how much compromising you’re prepared to do, on the way to your own personal horizon. Our final advice is to go with Frank or go with Glen, just don’t end up in a Christopher Cross song and get caught – “Between the Moon and New York City”…

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