How to Be Powerful, Likable, and Female: Learn From Jenna Lyons

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Photo: Getty

The novelist Jennifer Weiner told The New Yorker this week that she feels ostracized from the literary community because she likes to write warm, likable female characters. Weiner was responding to writer Claire Messud’s recent suggestion that “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.” It was a lit-world version of a long-standing feminist maxim that well-behaved women rarely make history. ”In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be,” wrote Roxane Gay at Buzzfeed last week. To want to be liked is to conform to often-sexist expectations. “Women adjust their behavior to be likable,” as Jessica Valenti once put it, “and as a result have less power in the world.”

We all want to live in a society in which women are allowed to be critical, complex, and imperfect — not vapid, people-pleasing automatons. But something about this dismissal of likability doesn’t sit well with me. Maybe it’s because, even for those of us who are quick to apply the “hater” label to our detractors and move on without batting an eye, it seems impossible not to crave others’ approval on some level. I’ve read the research — which clearly states that success and likability go hand-in-hand for men but not women — yet I refuse to accept the fact that my options are to be a successful bitch or a well-liked failure. I’ll always admire the Martha Stewarts of the world for unapologetically chasing professional domination, no matter how many employees are crying in the bathroom. If I’m honest, though, I don’t want to be these women. Or work for them. I want to be both successful and liked.

I want to be Jenna Lyons.

Yeah, yeah, I know: We all want to be Lyons, the charismatic, stylish president and executive creative director of J.Crew. She’s powerful and accomplished, yet her subordinates seem to not only respect her but genuinely enjoy working for her. "Jenna really loves people who are themselves, flaws and all," one employee told Fast Company last year. "If you mess up or totally do the wrong thing, you have to look her in the eye and say 'I messed this up,' and she will always say, 'Okay, we'll fix it.'" Says another, "She knows how to make you feel appreciated, even if you need to be redirected."

It would seem Lyons has found an answer to the question posed by many ambitious young women: “How can I be taken seriously at work without being perceived as a bitch?”

What comes through in the quotes from her staff is that she is invested in them on both a professional and a personal level — “I think she knew I was pregnant before I did,” says one staffer. That’s not trying to be liked. That’s actually caring. Striving for likability may carry a whiff of fakeness — just look at Anne Hathaway, who’s hated because people think she's trying too hard — but true likability and authenticity go hand-in-hand. People can tell when your smile is forced and when you couldn’t care less how their weekend went.

It’s also clear from the anecdotes that Lyons makes even criticism feel like a collaboration. "We’ll fix it." This is interesting in light of research says women bosses might be well-liked until they start doing the hard work of management: making tough decisions, calling out people who aren't pulling their weight, speaking up to keep the team on track. It seems Lyons has managed those latter tasks without getting labeled a bitch. Well, at least not by everyone. I’m sure there are J.Crew employees who don’t care for Lyons or her management style—who fall in line with the research. It's impossible to be liked by everyone. Even when you’re Jenna Lyons.

Genuine likability is a fuzzy, subjective thing. Our reasons for liking someone, be they a manager or a best friend, can’t always be explained rationally. Which isn’t to say people haven’t tried. Last year two consultants announced that they had devised a “likability test.” They claimed this series of ten questions — such as “How well do you balance getting results with a concern for others’ needs?” — could “accurately measure a person’s likability.” The consultants found that women continued to receive high scores on the test even as they moved up the management ladder, and therefore this proved that successful women could be well-liked. But Marianne Cooper, the lead researcher on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book, replied that the consultants were actually measuring interpersonal skills, not likability. Just because employees can tell that you care doesn’t mean they’ll still like you after you’ve reprimanded them for coming in late. “To be clear, it is not that women are always disliked more than men when they are successful,” Cooper writes, “but that they are often penalized when they behave in ways that violate gender stereotypes.” Such violations are pretty much required of anyone who’s a boss.

This is why I’m so fascinated by Lyons. Difficult tasks like “redirecting” an employee, or telling him he messed up, seem to have only increased her staff’s esteem for her. Tough love and honesty are supposedly kryptonite to most women’s likability, but when I think of the people I like the most, they aren’t the most agreeable. They are honest with me, but not so blunt as to disregard my feelings altogether. They are challenging, but don’t argue for the sake of argument.The emotional labor of cultivating that sort of likability transcends gender.  I acknowledge that my definition of likable is probably pretty different from, say, that of a middle-aged man working in corporate America. So I’m certainly not suggesting women strive for an abstract, catch-all ideal of likability. That doesn’t exist. Rather, it’s probably better for each of us, as individuals, to think of the traits that are common among the people we hold in high regard, and then emulate them.

To me, this is fundamentally different than subsuming your personality or swallowing your opinions in an empty bid for non-threatening popularity. It’s just a smart way to live. Rather than train myself to ignore how other people feel about me, I’d prefer to aim for the kind of competent, charismatic appeal that Lyons exudes. It’s tough to find a balance, and there’s a danger that holding Lyons up as an example creates just another standard that’s impossible for women to meet. But I prefer to see a glimmer of hope in those quotes from her staff that there is a middle ground. You can be successful without shutting down your emotions and ignore all external feedback. You can be liked without being a doormat. And it’s okay to want it both ways.