Increase likability at work without being a doormat
May 13, 2022 8:39 AM   Subscribe

I want to be more likable at work, and seen as more of a team player. I want to improve my "bond" with my teammates. But, I want to do this while also having good boundaries, and I suck at boundaries so I need help. I am remote, and confirmed ADHD with probable autism so there's that factor as well.

I work in a field that requires emotional labor, so being seen as difficult or as a "that's not my job" type of person is professionally unwise.

Here is some context for how I came to be seen that way, if it matters. Early in the role, I had a scuffle with a colleague who pushed back on me to do something in a way that was disrespectful. This person was very strategic and "chain of command, cc everyone" in their approach to work, which... isn't me, never has been me. I initiated the conversation as I usually do, giving benefit of the doubt, but this person proved that they do not want to collaborate in good faith like most of my coworkers throughout my career. They were very "that's not my job" about it. I did not see any choice besides consulting the supervisor to clarify responsibilities. Supervisor verified that it was Colleague's responsibility. I felt that I had to maintain that same delineation with other members of the team to prevent any additional issues. But this has resulted in being seen as a "not my job" type of worker. I monitor a specific type of task, and sometimes the task that comes in is "owned" by a teammate. I am supposed to delegate to said teammate, even though I could often technically handle it myself, and it would often be my preference to refer to the "owner" as doing it myself can result in confusion of the "too many cooks in the kitchen" variety.

I do not usually look for ways to get out of work, but my usual approach is to be helpful to the point that I am probably a pushover. So I need help finding a middle ground. In my graduate program they told us to guard against professional burnout, have good boundaries, don't give from an empty cup etc. Apparently I took this to heart and became rather self-absorbed as a result. (I have also been trained in my personal relationship to be like this, as my partner likes to give, and does not like to receive, so he has promoted an imbalance around this process that is hard to change. Over time I've accepted that he wants me to be the designated receiver in most things but that means I do not exercise my neural networks for generosity and doing for others as much as I used to.)

I want to be kinder to my colleagues instead of just polite, remember their personal life things and ask about them. Take on tasks that are "theirs" when it makes sense to me to do so, but also do this in a way that they know I did that as kind of a favor for them. And I want to be able to do all of this without creating an expectation that people can hand me anything and I'll do it. I want to somehow still be able to say "no" without being seen as "not a team player." Maybe since I am a woman in a profession with this expectation of EL and caretaking, this is an impossible ask?

The ADHD makes it hard to attend to audio-only conversations as often as I'd like which probably interferes with some of this likability. The (probable) autism means the nuance of these things escapes me and I am often puzzled why people respond to one person better or differently than another.

We just brought on someone new that is supposed to help with my responsibilities, which is a great excuse to modify the rigid boundaries I've been using. But how to do this without falling to the opposite extreme? How do I ensure that I leave people feeling good about their interactions with me? I understand I can't make everyone like me, and I do have personal triggers around that partially motivating the question, but it's also good professional conduct to improve in these areas, considering I am in a field that heavily expects EQ, EL and basically people think we are supposed to set ourselves on fire to keep everyone else warm. I know that I will not push myself that far because I just can't without sacrificing my health, but I need to play the game better.

Re: boundaries: I've read books about them. I've had therapy. Both help somewhat. But they do not come naturally to me by any means. I can be assertive when needed, even direct to the point of probably being rude, but general boundaries are confusing to me (if not made very explicit in words, which most people don't do.) I find myself accidentally violating boundaries because they were set indirectly or implied. And I tend to have overly rigid ones to prevent myself from getting overwhelmed by over-promising. I often avoid "small talk" with my coworkers for fear that I am bothering them or they will think I am distracting them in an unwanted way vs refreshing break from the regular tasks of the day.

(I continue to work on these things in therapy, especially the need to be liked and the boundaries, but with ADHD sometimes there is a persistent rejection sensitivity that you can't necessarily "erase" with therapy. I can address trauma related boundary problems but I'm not sure therapy can do much for the autistic related boundary problems.)

I want to be a more pleasant person to work with for self-preservation reasons, but I also would like to become less self-absorbed/selfish in general. Being a mother of a young child, having so many responsibilities, and being likely autistic, I tend to default to self-focus as a matter of survival/self-care, but there must be a way to do this without being "selfish"? Or am I just holding myself to unreasonable standards?

I was raised by a narcissist, and am ashamed to admit in the past when I tried to work on this issue, whenever I intentionally centered the other person I would feel this internal deflation that made it difficult to sustain that focus on the other. I actually like doing things for other people, but it is rarely the "mind reading" (aka "guess culture") type of approach. If the expectations are clear and specific, and if I know my participation is welcome, I am a very generous person, but situations are often not like that.

I want to be likeable, a team player, but also well-respected and I have no idea how to accomplish both of those things at once. Thanks in advance.
posted by crunchy potato to Work & Money (8 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
First off, being expected to be both likeable and well-respected is a double bind that affects women more. Trying to find this balance is an issue for neurotypical folks as well, so don't be too hard on yourself. Some coworkers will exploit any loophole to get you to take on extra work, so it may be an unreasonable expectation that you can pick up extra work sometimes without people testing the waters by giving you more. Has your supervisor actually given you feedback to change what you're doing?

As far as "likeable," I have actually added things to my to-do list like asking coworkers about whatever they said they were doing last weekend. I have coworkers who are super into their cats and crossfit, respectively, so I ask them about those things. Giving people an opportunity to talk about themselves and showing that you're paying attention is a pretty good shortcut to being seen as likeable. A couple of coworkers don't like this, so I just greet them and maybe give a "how's it going?" Signing onto Zoom calls a few minutes early is one way to find this work socializing time when working remotely. Adding a sentence about their hobby in my email signoff is a thing I do, too.
posted by momus_window at 9:02 AM on May 13 [7 favorites]

This is hard because being respected as a colleague and being liked as a friend are two different, sometimes mutually exclusive goals. But in general, I think it's easier to earn respect as a colleague first and then leverage that into friendship. People will overlook a lot of social weirdness if you're good at your job, but that rarely goes the other way. Even if you get a job via a friend's recommendation, that friend is likely to drift away if you're not holding up the work end of the deal. It's hard to be work friends with someone who isn't good at work.

If you are good at your job, this might actually be what's causing your likability issues, though. In the example of the "not my job but really is my job" co-worker, it's hard for you to respect him because he's not good at his job. He senses that lack of respect, and is self-conscious about it. That prevents you from being likable.

So it's not all on you. There's some institutional responsibility as well. You need to be operating on a team of equals (or at least near-equals) for this all to work. Otherwise everyone simmers at everyone, or cliques form, or any number of other situations commonly lumped under the rubric of "toxic".

When you're using the "team player" language, I think it's useful to take it all the way and think about team sports. What makes someone a good team player on a basketball team, for example? If you're a below-average player, it means realizing your limitations and trying to improve. Don't hog the ball if you can barely dribble and airball every shot you take. But also, don't hog the ball if you're the best player on the team, either. Yeah, the team would still probably win if you just took a shot every time someone passed it to you, but then everyone else feels left out and resentful. Use your talent to draw double teams, and then your teammates have open shots. Watch their shooting form and give them tips to improve. Help position them on defense. And if you're the bad player and the good players don't do this, ask them for help proactively. The common theme here is making your teammates better. Help your good teammates do what they do best, and help your bad teammates look better than they are. They'll respect you for this, and at the very least, they'll like playing/working with you, even if you don't become close personal friends.

With regard to boundaries, the basketball team analogy is illustrative as well. Yeah, if you're the best player on the team, you should help your teammates play better, but don't be so unselfish that you, the best player, don't ever take a shot.

But yeah, boundaries also mean realizing what you can't do as well. If you've got a teammate who just refuses to play defense, who stands on the offensive side of the court while the other time has the ball in your end, it's not your responsibility to defend two opponents. That's what it sounds like happened with your co-worker. If you've got bad faith teammates, respect and likability are always going to be hard to come by, because those kinds of people are only able to like or respect people who let them do what they want to do.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:33 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]

This is so hard for women in the workplace, so I feel you.
I think the following makes women likeable without being doormats :

1. Consistency
2. Diplomacy
3. Generally a good positive attitude
4. Being able to see challenges as opportunities (harrrd)
5. Mindful of your words and actions
6. Hard working
7. asks for help and says thank you - having enough humility to accept help to change for the better.

These are all non gendered things … and if I work with anyone who can manage all of them most of the time, I can’t dislike the person
posted by Dressed to Kill at 9:42 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]

So, first of all, you have a lot going on, and yes, it's definitely the case that sometimes work can be easier and go more smoothly when folks are "likeable," but that's not always the easiest thing to cultivate. So I think the first part is to go easy on yourself.

How do I ensure that I leave people feeling good about their interactions with me?
You cannot. You just must accept that people's feelings are out of your control. You can be kind and honest and direct, but that doesn't mean they will feel good. Let's say you have to fire someone. You can't possibly make them feel good at the end of this unless they wanted to be fired, which is just... no, that's not going to happen. That's an extreme example, but sometimes we have to give people information they don't want and they might decide to think bad things about us as a consequence.

It sounds like you want to work on your soft skills. There's an old book called How To Win Friends and Influence People (that I've never read) and here's a summary of some of the tips. I suspect these are more oriented towards men in professional contexts, but there you go.

I like to think I'm a kind person, and I also know that I can come across as harsh or too direct. So I try to soften things a bit by making a point to greet people and ask how they are. And I sometimes email folks directly to let them know I appreciate them.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:51 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oops, I should clarify that I don't really care what the "bad faith" colleague thinks about me. I tried to build a bridge with them when we were both new, they didn't want it (bc I didn't have any political power so it wasn't a good strategy to invest in a relationship with me), and now I don't want it either. But my approach to dealing with Bad Faith Colleague colored others' impressions of me because of the rigid boundaries and task delegation process applied globally to avoid further political problems.

To answer the question asked of me, my supervisor has never asked me to take on more. I can be overly involved or less involved, and either way they are happy with my work bc they trust that I will continue to do the core stuff well.
posted by crunchy potato at 9:51 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]

A lot of this is familiar to me! I too have trouble sussing out when it is to my advantage to do my coworker a solid on some task that isn’t mine vs when I should touch my nose and say “not it.” Also with the small talk (am I lingering awkwardly? All lingering feels awkward, tbh). You have my sympathy.

I like the advice you’re getting, and of course we can all grow when it comes to this intangible stuff, but I do want to encourage you not to be too hard on yourself. “Mother of young child” plus “ND person in an emotional-labor-heavy role” is playing on hard. I was not my savviest me during those years. I bet both things will get easier as your child grows, and it’s okay if the second thing happens slowly.
posted by eirias at 9:57 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]

But my approach to dealing with Bad Faith Colleague colored others' impressions of me because of the rigid boundaries and task delegation process applied globally to avoid further political problems.

Well, is the problem perhaps having rigid requirements because of the worst case scenario? Something I dislike in organizations is when people create rules for everyone because one person did a bad thing when it seems like there truly is a problem with one person. We don't necessarily need to have entire systems and approaches because one person is a jerk; we just need to manage that person (even if this is a sideways-management-colleague situation).

Is there a way to have firm boundaries and rigid requirements with Bad Faith Colleague and have something a bit squishier with other folks? I'm wondering if people are getting the vibe from you that they are Bad Faith Colleagues because they don't understand the rigidity.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:14 PM on May 13 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you feel yourself bouncing between the extreme of being a doormat and the extreme of being a receiver and setting over restrictive boundaries as a protection for yourself. It's actually really hard to tell from what you wrote here whether you perceive yourself as doing too much at work (doormat) or potentially not enough (over rigid boundaries, trained to be a receiver rather than a giver). It's possible that therapy could help you come to a clearer self-perception.

In terms of being likable, the easiest thing to do is like other people. Decent people with decent self-esteem appreciate being liked, and it will predispose them favorably to the person who likes them. Actively looking for things to like and appreciate about the people you interact with and finding ways to express that to them would be the most genuine way to do that, but of course it can be faked also.

In terms of responding to requests (implicit or explicit) for work, it sounds like the most useful thing you could do for yourself would be to state to the person what you think they're asking (making the implicit more explicit), express empathy for whatever difficulty/stress is bringing them to you for help, and tell them you have to think about it whether/what you might be able to figure out to see what you can do to support them. That lets them feel seen and validated, and buys you time to think about the request rather responding either too generously or not as generously as you would like or as would be tactical. Whatever you decide, you can think about how best to word it to convey what you want to convey, whether it's "I'm sorry that's not something I can take on right now" possibly with an offer to help them brainstorm another source of help, or "I'm glad to help you out with that, honored that you came to me, and glad that I could carve out time/cancel something else to be able to do that" (in a way that conveys that it's not a small deal and that they can't take your time for granted).

Decent people also appreciate honest and appropriate vulnerability. To me, this would mean letting people know that you're not good at knowing when a conversation is over, so they might have to hint harder than usual/outright tell you they have to go. It will be a relief to them that it's something you're aware of and that you've handed them a way to deal with it.

In terms of autism-related boundary problems - I'm not sure what avenues you have already explored, but since you don't mention them, I would just say that it seems possible to me that there is therapy and support for that. I work at a school with a program for autistic students and they have an ongoing social developmental intervention support program that seems to support them exactly in areas like this. In less than a year, I have seen them grow in their confidence and ability to navigate in the neurotypical world. It's an ongoing process, but if it's something you haven't explored yet, it seems worth looking into.
posted by Salamandrous at 11:23 AM on May 14 [2 favorites]

« Older FMLA for mental health? Difficulty level: Kaiser...   |   Question on how skin allergies work: Propylene... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments