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Alicia Menendez to women: Don't be likeable, be wildly ambitious at work

The MSNBC host and author of “The Likeability Trap” describes why women feel the need to be liked and how that can hurt their professional aspirations.
MSNBC host Alicia Menendez and "Morning Joe" co-host and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski.
MSNBC host Alicia Menendez and "Morning Joe" co-host and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski.Anthony Scutro

Working women who advocate for a raise, promotion or change in job description often fall into what MSNBC anchor Alicia Menendez refers to as a “likeability trap.”

“All of that makes you less likeable because you’re going to the mat for yourself,” said Menendez. “It sets us up to feel as though if we don't succeed, it is our own fault.”

In a February interview with Know Your Value founder and “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski, Menendez outlined how women can collectively fight back against the workplace structures that keep them stuck.

Even though “liking everyone we work with is an impossibility,” said Menendez, women are socialized to think about themselves in relation to others, internalizing the negative reactions of coworkers. So if there’s pushback on a request for a raise or title change, women often take it personally.

“Instead of focusing on what women can do for themselves,” Menendez said, “I'm focusing on what we can all do to push back against these larger questions of what makes someone less likeable.”

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Advocate for other women

When women tout each other’s strengths and contributions to the bottom line, it is often received much better than when a woman shares her own successes. Menendez said, “When a woman takes credit and talks about what she's done, it doesn't land the same as when someone else says those things about her.”

Women can also advocate for other women by shifting the conversation to emphasize the positive. For example, if someone comments that a female coworker is “indecisive,” one may counter, “Is she indecisive? Or is she deliberate?” That small adjustment can make a big difference.

If women operate with this spirit of generosity, all women benefit.

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Acknowledge that aggressiveness can be complicated

Aggressiveness “gets read differently in different rooms,” Menendez said. “It also gets read differently depending on your race.” She added that what other people may interpret as anger is “really just you being assertive.”

Menendez said that one way to put things in perspective is to “ask someone who's ruffled the wrong way by a woman why that is.”

If a woman receives feedback that she’s too aggressive, she can ask, “Compared to whom?” Then, Menendez added, “ask how that style is connected to the results and the outcome of your work. Because someone may be able to draw a line for you between your style and your results. But if they can't, then that's a problem.”

“Be wildly ambitious”

Ambition can really fuel our success. “Be ambitious, be wildly ambitious,” Menendez said, “because if you constantly run up against people who are telling you ‘no,’ ambition is the only thing that motors you through.”

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Menendez, who described herself as being a wildly ambitious, cautioned that while there will be people who jump right on board to help a woman accomplish her dreams, there are also people who will be turned off by her ambition.

“And that is a truth and a reality that women are navigating every day,” said Menendez.