How to be likable to people who are complaining about you

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I am always harping on how important it is to be nice. I have written about how you will be happy at work if you have three friends there, you will get promoted if people like you and you should try to be more likable no matter how likable you think you are right now.

A recent study by SkillSoft tells which factors employees see as most important to their wellbeing. Here’s the list:

1. Flexible working hours
2. Working with people I like
3. Having enough annual leave
4. Having time off on short notice
5. Enjoying the job
6. Getting along well with colleagues
7. Feeling liked by my colleagues
8. Getting along well with my boss
9. Being trusted by my boss
10. Having a clear understanding of my goals

Five of these top ten factors of workplace happiness have to do with interpersonal relationships. So it seems that most people understand the importance of being well liked at work.

But not everyone knows how to achieve this. And to be fair, it’s not easy. Being well liked at work means taking a lot of risks, and when it comes to deciding to make a risky move, we are inherently reticent. Daniel Gilbert’s research shows we are way better at seeing the downside than the upside.

Good social skills start with being vulnerable. If you want to create a relationship with someone, you need to open up a little piece of yourself so they can see inside and find something to connect with. Some relationships will be close, some will be casual, but all will be based on you figuring out how to open up just a bit. Keith Ferrazzi gave a great step-by-step approach to this process in his book, Never Eat Alone, and he gave the Cliff’s Notes version when I interviewed him. But the bottom line is that in order to make a real connection with someone, you have to take a real risk.

Most of the mail I get about social skills at work is from people who feel like they’ve messed up. When it comes to social skills – and any skill, really – you can judge your own competence by how well you manage yourself in a mess.

Eric Dezenhall is a publicist who specializes in managing situations where someone has messed up and the author of the book Damage Control. He says, “So much of crisis management comes down to basic likability. Do we like you?” Dezenhall says mental gymnastics to craftily shift the blame have unimpressive results. “It doesn’t matter how smart you are. What matters is if we like you.”

When things go wrong, the first thing you should consider is apologizing. Saying you’re sorry is powerful. “The public is enormously forgiving of genuine contrition,” according to research about bouncing back from a career mess by Jeffrey Sonnenfelt at Yale School of management. For example, medical malpractice suits go down significantly when a doctor is willing to apologize for a mistake.

However an apology only works when you are truly sorry. Dezenhall points out that an apology made just to make a problem go away often does more harm than good because it is, in fact, inconsistent with who you are and not believable.

This advice brings to mind the reaction to my panel discussion at BlogHer last weekend. Not during, but after. The room was totally packed, and there were questions flying the whole time, and I answered questions how I usually do: Short and direct.

Later I saw the online aftermath of the panel, and there were a few bloggers who were very upset.

Of course, no matter what I say there are always a few people who are upset. And some weeks there are a few thousand people upset. In general, I read the comments, learn from those that I can learn from, and move on. I asked some friends what I should do about the unhappy BlogHer bloggers. All my friends told me to ignore it. “It doesn’t matter,” is what they said over and over.

It is at this moment – when you find out that someone doesn’t like what you’ve done – that determines how well liked you are at work. You can’t bow to every complaint about what you do, but you do need to get good at figuring out which people to address and which to ignore. Both decisions are risks.

Here’s what I learned from the criticism about me at the blog Suburban Turmoil: It is more effective to be short and direct in writing than it is in person. The comments section on the blog post complaining about me was already boisterous. So I thought I might get trounced again for adding my own comment. But I took a chance and apologized because I could do it with honesty.

On the other hand, I received nearly 100 personal emails from people attacking me for the last column I wrote on Yahoo Finance, and I am ignoring them. Well, except for this one, which I can’t resist publishing, from Eduard Bauer:

“Please stop giving horrible advice. Your detachment from reality is hurting the American economy.”

35 replies
  1. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    "Please stop giving horrible advice. Your detachment from reality is hurting the American economy."

    — I’m sure there is some good career advice possible in response here on the lack of effectiveness of “shooting the messenger.”

  2. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    The “hurting the American economy” comment is really a compliment. Think of how much power you actually have to have to do that.

  3. Suburban Turmoil
    Suburban Turmoil says:

    Well, I appreciated the apology. Really, I did. And it’s funny that you’ve written about it, because when I read your comment, it occured to me that an apology is often the best way to handle a situation professionally and smooth over any ruffled feathers- yet too many people find it almost impossible to do. So thank you.

    And in return, I’m sorry I said I thought you were a former castmember of Krofft Superstars. ;)

  4. MarilynJean
    MarilynJean says:

    Great post, Penelope. Apologizing seems like the simplest thing to do especially when you’re the “offendee”, but it isn’t. So when a person can apologize for their transgressions, it’s very valuable.

    On another note, I visited the ST site and took a look at the comments. They are just as lame as the comments left on Yahoo! Finance. Quite frankly, it saddens me when women antagonize other women. I wonder if they would have been saying the same things if a man responded to their questions in the manner she describes you as doing. I have seen Podcasts with you, read your interviews and met you in person and I have never gotten negative impressions.

    In the end, you’re still great and you’re even greater because you apologized…publicly.

  5. d
    d says:

    It’s funny that you cite a book called “Damage Control,” as that’s what this blog entry reads like. It sounds like you’re trying to put the best face on an outing that didn’t go very well (and could even up being a handicap for you, going forward).

    I’d like to offer one comment…

    You write:

    You can't bow to every complaint about what you do, but you do need to get good at figuring out which people to address and which to ignore

    This is a reasonable point. But I think you’re missing–or at least not mentioning–an important piece: We should strive for the wisdom to be able to see ourselves as others see us.

    You know how when you listen to your own recorded voice, and you say, “Ugh! That’s not me!”? It took me a long, painful time to learn that interpersonal interactions are the same way: The person you are may be quite different from the person you project.

    This realization made a big difference for me not only in my career, but also in my personal life.

  6. Stephanie Sheaffer
    Stephanie Sheaffer says:

    Great piece of advice! The simplicity of good business decorum often astounds me. The rules are really rather uncomplicated: be nice, apologize if you make a mistake, think of others before yourself, etc.

    Parents who pass on good manners and positive personal character qualities (honesty, working hard, willingness to learn, etc.) may actually give their child a greater shot at success than parents who, say, send their child to Harvard.

  7. Chuck Westbrook
    Chuck Westbrook says:

    Agree about the difference between terse writing and terse speech.

    In writing, we are requesting the attention of the reader. In conversation, the other party is requesting our attention when they ask us a question.

    To be maximally effective in reaching your audience (whether writing or speaking) you have to be the one doing the giving. In print, that means give them info quickly. In person, that means give attention generously.

    This comment isn’t directed at you as advice, Penelope, but it was just a thought I had and wanted to share in light of your post.

  8. Almostgotit
    Almostgotit says:

    Oh, I don’t know, Penelope. Being liked isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes it gets you promoted, sure, but sometimes it also makes you the easiest guy to leave behind. Been there..!!!!

  9. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    I like this article. There is a fine line between being liked and being a pushover. Defining that line and using it to an advantage is half the battle. You can be liked yet still have the respect not to get left behind. Along with apologies it is also a good quality to admit when you are wrong or admit you don’t know something. Half the battle of any profession is figuring out problems, and you may not have the answer right away. I like to say, “I don’t know right now, but let me look at it and I will get an answer”. That to me speaks volumes over the people who shoot their mouth off with some hair brain answer of which they have no idea if it will work or not. And I believe it is those people that lose respect and also, lose their likeability.

  10. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    I was once in a discussion group. The leader would start every session by saying “Let’s do a two-minute go-round and if you have something to say at length let us know then and we’ll come back to you.”

    To me, two minutes meant two minutes but other people spoke longer and the leader would engage them in conversations lasting up to 20 minutes.

    After a few weeks of this BS I got up the nerve to protest. The leader said he would take note. He didn’t so I brought in a timer. He went nuts.

    Do I have to tell you that I was the most hated member of the group? In fact, I only stayed on as an act of resistance. Everyone would have been happy to see me go.

    The moral: if you want to be liked, don’t be the odd man out.

  11. L. Bates
    L. Bates says:

    As others have said in varying ways above, there is a fine line between being nice and being a doormat. I think this advice is harder to take for men, but easier to get wrong for women. Even in the 21st century, most women are conditioned to be pleasing and accomodating – the ones who “smooth it over” when things get tense. While this is an admirable trait, it is also one that can lead you to doormat status.

    I’ve found in my career that being nice must be tempered with being fair – fair in how I evaluate my performance and the performance of others, fair in my expectations of others, and fair in my treatment of my co-workers, both above and below me.

    The greatest compliment I ever received was when I quit a job for a great opportunity with a competitor. I got wind that a few folks thought my team would be glad I was leaving because I demanded so much of them. To the contrary, four of the five quit within a month of my resignation, and cited my leaving as the reason for their departure. I didn’t recruit them, I didn’t advise them, I didn’t cajole them. They left because, even when I was demanding, even if I wasn’t always “nice”, I was always fair.

  12. Frank
    Frank says:

    You know who the biggest detractors of women in the workplace are? Other women. And this is just another example. It’s actually astonishing.

    I do have some advice for you: Don’t get into apologies with lesser bloggers who want to do a tear down. Ignore them. Here’s a sugar packet philosophy: Never apologize. Your friends don’t need it, and your enemies won’t believe you anyway. Really mature of Suburban Turmoil to say something about your name. I mean, what is this, 3rd grade?

    Ignore them if you can. And rock on.

  13. Alex Ion
    Alex Ion says:

    I really believe if someone has an opinion and is backed with arguments it won’t matter if he’s against the world as long as no one managed to change his beliefs.

    I appreciate that you give us YOUR opinions here and not some kiss-ass ideas, like we see on other blogs.

    Great job, and keep it coming!

  14. Joshua Barraza
    Joshua Barraza says:

    As always, great advice that can be applied universally, not just in the business world.

    Also, very specifically, how you deal with the negative comments you receive show great leadership ability – a very admirable trait. Thanks again for the lesson.

  15. Stuart
    Stuart says:


    As much as I liked your POV about apologizing, I can’t help but feel you’re ignoring the proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the room. To have such a unanimous outpouring of open hostility from the attendees – I’d be taking a long and deep look at my presentation skills & style.

    Apologizing is terrific and your points are well made, but the entire situation is crying out for a true root cause analysis.

    Perhaps a good future topic for a column?

    Love you anyway :-)


  16. Presh Talwalkar
    Presh Talwalkar says:

    I enjoyed the follwing advice: “But the bottom line is that in order to make a real connection with someone, you have to take a real risk.”

    I have two caveats:

    1. Be careful how you take risks in an office setting. If you make an off-color joke attempting to connect to some people (which you probably will ), be ready for the backlash from more sensitive, and politically correct coworkers. Often, what can be said over personal email cannot be broadcast to office lists. Or connect outside the office in a happy hour–tipsy coworkers are easier to please.

    2. You will fail when you take real risks, and it will hurt. During one summer, I was a camp counselor and spent extra effort helping one camper who didn’t fit in with the crowd. I tried to open up to him and did as much as possible. Nonetheless, he wrote in his exit comments that I was “not very helpful and didn’t do much.” I knew it wasn’t true; other counselors knew it wasn’t true. But yeah, it still hurts. I don’t regret helping, but it is important to expect some failure so you don’t get crushed.

  17. Brent
    Brent says:

    I don’t know about the BlogHer event, but I have read some of the Yahoo! Finance comments, and they are a bit brutal sometimes. But you have to be your own person and own the statements that you make. You may not always be liked, but you’ll be respected. (One out of two ain’t bad.) But I digress…I have always been very well-liked and very popular in my work environments. This held true in my last position, as well…except for one person…my boss. She worked very hard at showing me up and proving me wrong. I didn’t get it…until I came across an article about having a boss who’s insecure (maybe on your site?). I’m a “he” and she was a “she”, a year younger than me, I with an MBA, her without…and admittedly very competitive. We could’ve been a great team, because she was very smart, but she eventually ran me off (and a couple of other males after me). My point is, sometimes being likable won’t even save you…but it’s still very important. Her boss liked me, as did the HR director…and I was treated very well as I left and provided with resources and recommendations that I wouldn’t have received otherwise. Keep up the good work…and OWN it, girl!

  18. Jay @ Dumb Little Man
    Jay @ Dumb Little Man says:

    Morons are a dime a dozen and they have indeed landed on this blog.

    I don’t always agree with Penelope but without people like her, all of those complaining would be drones.

    If you really had super-smarts, you wouldn’t be reading this blog. You are reading because you are seeking change and Penelope’s advice is surely strong enough to open your mind enough to make changes.

    If you are reading with no intention of changing, you are wasting your time and by commenting you are wasting mine.

    Jay White

  19. d
    d says:

    I think Stuart hits the nail on the head (and dovetails nicely with what I wrote, I would immodestly suggest). To that, I would add that the affirmation you get from your partisans who congregate here is probably exactly what you *don’t* need.

    I wasn’t there, so I don’t know 100% what happened. I do know this: For someone in your career/particular spot, BlogHer is probably a very important event. And it sounds like you blew it. An apology is beside the point. You need to figure where your whole mindset/attitude disconnected from where it needs to be (ego boost from too many commenters telling you you walk on water?); sooner would be smarter than later.

    Some time ago, you shared with us something your husband said to you, along the lines of people’s telling him that you abuse him. It sounds like you left a large number of people feeling abused (or at least insulted)…this all, again, makes me think that you’d do well to look seriously at whether the “you” you project matches the “you” you really are.

    * * * * * *
    Yeah, I do think it’s an important mistake to learn from. My style online is very direct and I’m very opinionated. People were not expecting that. The culture of BlogHer is more mommyblogger than business, I think. One lesson is that direct works better online than in a presentation. Another lesson is get a good handle on the people you’re presenting to, before you present to them.


  20. Kat
    Kat says:

    Whenever you get negative comments about yourself, just apply the old saying “Any Publicity is Good Publicity”.

    I noticed that many of the negative comments also refer to previous advice that you’ve given, showing that the reader has continued to read your work, despite the fact that they don’t agree with it. If they really thought what you said was useless, surely they wouldn’t bother commenting and would choose not to read anything by you again.

    If you believe in your what you are saying, just carry on saying it. The thing that differentiates your blog from others is that you offer advice on how to do the topic you are covering, rather than just stating facts about it. I love it. Keep it up!

  21. Jen Lemen
    Jen Lemen says:


    I was one of the women who you were unimpressed with in regard to branding in the Blogher session. “Art, soul, stories?” you said, picking up my tag line from my introduction. “I don’t know what you’re selling.” I sat down regretting I had asked a question in hopes of steering the conversation to general principles instead of one-on-one speed consulting in front of a group.

    The rest of the weekend I found out how right you were. While very few people I spoke to seemed aware of my book “Beginnings” on Etsy or my cards, I spent the rest of the conference meeting women who were very aware of me, my personal message and my blog. I learned that while my branding around the things I sell is still weak, the branding of myself as “Jen Lemen” was very strong. Women I’d never met wanted me to know they understood my point in your session, and that in my case most specifically *because of what I stand for online* you’d crossed the line.

    The whole experience was really valuable to me. While it smarted to be taken to task in front of a group, I’m very glad now for the opportunity to see where I’m strong and where my work remains. If you hadn’t addressed so strongly how weak my brand is in one respect, I might not have found out how strong it is in another.

  22. Dale
    Dale says:

    I don’t understand why the attendees at Blogher were incensed at what you had to say. It was your opinion, not you laying down the law. As with everything you do, it stimulated discussion, but I wonder why that discourse did not occur there, in the room, instead of after the fact away from the event?
    Did you feel any of the tension at the event?

  23. Billy Bjorn
    Billy Bjorn says:

    Seems like most of your fans are male, and it seems like more males agree that you have to be a toughie in the workplace and do what you want.

    I think your advice is good. It's true to how a workplace should cater to the – €˜workers' – €“ and those ladies who commented that, "if I followed her advice I'd be collecting unemployment", just might be working in the wrong atmosphere.

    But you remind me of my older brother, and I feel this being the younger, you're a little bit patronizing. Maybe you've had the luck to be able to take your own advice, which is comforting, but not all people are that lucky – €“ and some have to adhere to certain crappy ways in a crappy workplace to keep a job and feed the mouths at home. Right? I like your advice cause it's stuff that I can relate to and follow. I'm writing and reading your work at my work, and I could put my shoes on if I wanted to and step out for 30 mins if I really wanted to also. When I tell people that, they just think I'm a douche who's going to get fired soon.

    In the end: good work and keep being yourself cause I know you will be. Soon I'll be linking my name here to a blog of my own. I'm just starting some work, and trying to hone in on a real, consistent and interesting overall topic and theme for the blog.


  24. Jim Escoe
    Jim Escoe says:

    Couldn’t agree with your more. The thing that most folks forget (myself included) is that its not good enough to be a likable person, you really have to be out there forming and enforcing relationships in big organizations. Otherwise, sad as it seems, the default is to assume the worst when someone doesn’t understand or agree with your positions

    Excellent article!

  25. Mary
    Mary says:

    My experience in attending these panel thingies is that the audience wants two things:

    1. Good rule-of-thumb advice from insiders during the general session, backed-up by good take-aways.

    2. Reassurance, encouragement, and a little friendly advice in response to specific questions.

    And that’s really about it. People feel extremely vulnerable asking questions in front of a small group, let alone a packed audience. No one wants to be shot down in the public eye. Your goal is to have the audience appreciate what you’ve said, rather than be upset about how you’ve said it–so, yeah, changing your short and direct style might be good. Your message can be the same, just delivered with a little more empathy.

    Not everyone is as tough as me!


  26. Zandria
    Zandria says:

    I attended the BlogHer panel where you spoke, and I enjoyed it. It’s okay to be short and direct; you had limited time to talk and were able to get to many questions that way.

  27. Farah
    Farah says:



  28. Dale
    Dale says:


    I do not know you, so what I say may be of no value, but it’s a starting point.

    Perhaps you should begin TODAY by listening more and offering opinions, criticism, etc “more judiciously” than you have in the past – or even only when directly asked.

    When appropriate, ask people questions about themselves or their loved ones or their work, BUT, you must be genuinely interested in their answers! Do NOT give opinions unless asked and try to foster relaxed conversations as opposed to what may be viewed as long winded gossiping or snooping! If you learn something to be concerned about during the talk, offer sympathy more through facial expression, or with body language, i.e. nonverbally, rather than verbally.

    Also, smile more. It is hard for someone to not respond to a really heart felt smile.

    Just my two cents:)

  29. Shannon
    Shannon says:

    I’ve really liked Student Council in junior hight, but now I’m having a really hard time getting along with people in high school in that class. I’m not sure how to react, and to be honest, a subject I really love is now one I truly hate.
    Please help.

  30. Mikey
    Mikey says:

    “It is more effective to be short and direct in writing than it is in person” that was a spot on and I’m all over it, when I want to make a point, it’s easier for me just write everything down in details and send it by email.

    Naruto frog purse

  31. Dan
    Dan says:

    “It is at this moment – €“ when you find out that someone doesn’t like what you’ve done – €“ that determines how well liked you are at work”

    I found someone doesn’t like what I’ve done and I examined self and I arrived at the conclusion that I did Moshe is bad and then I repaired him.

    Thanks for the article he helped me very…


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