Does Popularity in Youth Help You at Work?

Were you popular as a kid? I wasn’t – not exactly. I wasn’t in the cool crowd, but I was friends with a lot of different people. I never got invited to the best parties or scored the best-looking football player as a boyfriend, but I didn’t stay home every Saturday night either.

According to psychologist and author of the new book Popular: The Power of Likeability in a Status-Obsessed World Mitch Prinstein, I actually had a better kind of popularity – the kind that lasts in the adult world of complex relationships and careers.

According to Prinstein’s research, it’s often not conventionally popular people who fare the best. In adolescence, popularity becomes about status, power and notoriety. But in our efforts to gain access to the right people doing the right things, we may lose sight of the goal to simply be a likeable human being. Yet, being likeable has an enormous impact on whether or not one is successful as a working professional.

Prinstein found that there is a specific set of traits that almost guarantees that an individual will be well-liked, and the list is similar for children and adults. Likeable people:

  • Cooperate with and are helpful to others
  • Are generally well-adjusted
  • Are smart (but not too smart!)
  • Are often in a good mood
  • Hold up their end of a conversation, but give the other person a chance to speak too
  • Are creative and adept at solving awkward social dilemmas
  • Follow the rules
  • Don’t disrupt the group

It’s true that these traits come more naturally to some people than others. But I’m a big believer in shaping one’s own destiny, and I believe each of us can develop these traits with some proactive effort. The great thing about likeability is that it exists in a positive feedback loop. Being likeable causes people to treat us better and encourages us to be even more likeable – and over time, positively transforms the course of our relationships and careers.

I know some of you are probably bristling at #7 in particular, thinking: “I’d rather be unlikeable than a passive conformist.” But here’s the thing: conforming when you don’t have authority might give you the likeability to gain a position of authority. And then, once you have that authority, you can afford to be less conformist. On the other hand, if you are unlikeable (i.e. you act aggressively or selfishly, break social norms with abandon, or place your own needs over the needs of the group), you may never get the necessary influence to drive important changes.

Alexandra Levit is a Partner at PeopleResults and is passionate about helping people and organizations succeed in the evolving workplace. You can reach her at or on Twitter @alevit.