Credit: Photograph of Rohit Bhargava courtesy of Imaginoor Photography 2012
Likability can be the ultimate competitive advantage in business, says Rohit Bhargava, an expert on the power of personality. Every day, amazing products fail, qualified candidates don’t get hired and world- changing ideas wither on the vine, he says. Having the best resume or the strongest feature list doesn’t always guarantee success.
People like to do business with people and companies they like, Bhargava says; that's the reality. Likability often trumps competence. The good news is that likability is not something you're born with; it's an acquired skill.
In his new book, "Likeonomics: The Unexpected Truth Behind Earning Trust, Influencing Behavior, and Inspiring Action" (Wiley, 2012), Bhargava takes a deep dive into the question of likability and why some people and companies are more likable — and believable — than others and what that means for businesses and individuals.
Bhargava is a senior vice president at Ogilvy, where he is a founding member of Ogilvy 360 Digital Influence team, and a professor of global marketing at Georgetown University. He is also the award-winning author of a previous book, "Personality Not Included."
If you had to graph likability on a map of human competencies, it would fall into the slippery sector of what we term "soft skills." After all, it's something that notoriously difficult to see or measure. We either like something or someone or we don't. By giving it short shrift, though, we're making a mistake, Bhargava told BusinessnewsDaily.
"Likability is a skill," he said. "A lot of people assume it's a skill you just have or you don't."
You can look at a seven-foot-tall person and say they have the natural skills to be a good basketball player. Skills like likability are more elusive, Bhargava said.
"It's tougher with the softer skills such as likability," he said. "We tend to downplay them."
Likability is actually a kind of emotional intelligence that entails the ability to correctly read people and find a common ground to relate with them, Bhargava said.
"We tend to not value that kind of intelligence as much as book intelligence or achievement intelligence in terms of qualifications," he said. "We tend to overvalue talent and undervalue culture."
Though we often conflate likability with niceness, light-years separate the two, Bhargava said. They are not interchangeable, even though we use them that way.
"There's a big difference between likable and being nice," he said. "Nice people don't tell you the truth. They're afraid to hurt your feelings."
The late Steve Jobs is a classic poster child for the distinction, Bhargava said. He was blunt truth-teller of the first order, but in his bluntness, he developed an aura of trust and believability that expressed itself in almost cultlike devotion.
"He wasn't nice, but if you look at the people closest to him, they didn't just like him — they loved him," he said.
"There is a perception of likability as a fundamental fact, but what I found is that being likable and building trust and believability comes down to doing a very specific set of things very well," he said. "For me, it meant five things — being truthful, being relevant, being unselfish, simplicity and having the right timing. Those were the five pieces I found over and over that when you put them together you were able to have this effect of building more trust."
Trust and believeability
Likability is the root of trust and believability, Bhargava said. And trust and believability are the foundation of all successful relationships.
"What it comes down to is trust," he said. "Because ultimately if you have trust, all sorts of things start to happen — you're more successful in your career, you get the job instead of losing it, you get the customers and the customers stick around, you get the best employees and they stick around and you make more money."
But likability isn't a personality contest. There's a common misconception that people have to be outgoing to be likable, that likability is the province of extroverts.
"I don't think that's true," Bhargava said. "What we don't focus enough on is being approachable. And being approachable doesn't have to do with going up and talking to some else in a social situation. It means being open to the conversations you're already having and the people you're already meeting. The one surefire way to convince anyone you talk to that you are an amazing conversationalist is to shut up and let them talk."
Likability is contagious
Likability is contagious inside an organization, he said. Having likable people attracts other likable people. And a lot of recruiting is based on likability, even though people don't realize it. It's usually seen through the prism of how well a person fits into the corporate culture.
There are very few jobs that can only be filled by one person in the world. For most jobs, there's a short list of qualified candidates with nearly equal qualifications.
"You can't narrow it down on paper," Bhargava said. "They all look the same. It's done on personality. This person will be a good fit for our culture. Usually it's described as culture. But ultimately what they are looking at is likability. If someone fits into that culture, they are relevant. Most of the decisions on hiring are usually based on chemistry."
A good barometer of the recognition of the need for likability and people skills is that these "soft skills" are being incorporated in every MBA program across the country, he said. And it's trickling down into the business world.
"Internally, some of the large companies are investing more resources and investing more time is finding ways to help their managers and senior leaders become more human," Bhargava said.
Human competency is becoming a core competency for many companies. The need for it is very simple, he said. There is no company that has an insurmountable lead in their industry anymore. There are challenges coming from everywhere.
Because small businesses are usually closer to their customers and closer to their employees, likability has traditionally been a competitive advantage. That's even more true today, when there's such a premium on trust and believability. But small businesses must be careful not to shoot themselves in the foot.
"I think likability can be a huge competitive advantage for small businesses," Bhargava said. "I think the challenge for small businesses is that they spend lots of time and effort to take that one advantage out of their business because they're trying to be big."
In the process, he said, they copy exactly the things big companies are doing that people don't like.
"Ultimately, likability is about building better relationships," Bhargava said. "It's a relationship idea. If you have more positive relationships, everything changes. All those things we want to happen in life — both professionally and personally — happen through relationships."