Likable vs. Relatable: Why Your Innate Desire to be Liked is Killing Your Business (and What to Do about It.)

Likable vs. Relatable_Banner_Maiko Sakai.jpg

“The Courage to be Disliked” has been a Japanese’s bestselling self-help book for the past few years.

It is a big deal as this probably is the last group of people on earth voicing their desire to be "different" and to be totally OK about it. It is a long time coming.

Born and raised in Japan, I have the first-hand experience in failing miserably at being a “girl next door.”  I have been (and still am) more like Wednesday (Christina Ricci) from The Addams Family or Lydia (Winona Ryder) from Beatlejuice. Not the most approachable in the eyes of a well-behaved collective. 

Luckily, my parents were strangely loose about me being different partly because they were creatives. Most of the time, it was even encouraged as, I'm guessing, they seemed to be entertained by it. They gave me a nod to be OK at being an inquisitive kid who was willing to get mentally bruised by trying something new.

Not many, especially in Japan, are that lucky. The most common comment you would hear as a child from your family members would be, "Why can't you be more like so-and-so (pick a name of the most well-behaved kid in your neighborhood when you were a child)?"

As you can imagine, years of social pressure like this one where people are constantly telling you to be someone else can do a number on your personal creativity and growth.

The popularity of “The Courage to be Disliked” clearly represents a delightful shift in their culture. It's the sign they are ready to give themselves a permission to shed their "not making any waves" way of living. So, I am cheering for them from afar.

While I have been pondering on this topic of Likable vs. Relatable for nearly a year, learning about the release of this book through Quartz recently was a welcoming push for me to put this post together.

Bottom Line:

Relatability first, then likability will naturally follow.  If you want to grow your business relatively fast, focus on being relatable and ditch your effort to be likable.  The cost of being safe to aim for a mass-adaptation is not an ideal business strategy for entrepreneurs.

So, What's the Difference?

If you fancy writing fiction, this may not be new to you. 

Since I have no training in fiction writing, I was not aware of the distinction between a likable character and relatable character until I started my research. Google it if you are interested in finding out whether a main character should be likable or relatable or both.

According to, it goes like this:

Likable = You like a character you can admire. Someone you look up to.

Relatable = You related to a character who is similar to you in some way.

In terms of character building for your fiction, the above gives enough clarity.  As a business insight, I would like to take a step further to define the distinction between likable and relatable as follows:

Likable = It has a wider appeal with easy-on-your-eyes narratives about your business offers.

Relatable = Regardless of good or bad impressions, your narratives about your business offers make a statement that a selective group of people will strongly resonate and connect with.

In most cases, business advice you find combine likable and relatable to make a point that, “It’s important to be likable and relatable to attract customers (or grow your network.)”

Here, I am offering another take to say that likable and relatable are not the same in business.  More importantly, focusing on relatability will eventually result in likability, which is the leveraging strategic route to take.  Not the other way around


5 Common Signs of Wanting to be Liked (too Much)

This is not to say you should disregard others and be annoying to people while “You Do You.”  A healthy dose of being likable (to be helpful to others) is important to surround yourself with a supportive group of people.  In other words, please use your common sense.

To find out whether you are innately wanting to be liked a little too much, you can use the below to see if any of them consumes your mind at all times.  

1. Seeking approvals or validations from others in order to measure your worth,

2. Insatiable appetite to get attention from others to build up self-importance,

3. Fear of being alienated.

4. Constantly doing “compare and despair,”

5. Fear of being wrong.

These tendencies drive you further away from your purpose to serve your customers because your business activities evolve around you and your needs.  It leads to create a disconnect between your actions and your original business vision as well as values. This is a BIG no-no.


Seeking Approvals or Validations from Others in Order to Measure Your Worth.

Simply, people who fall under this category are unsure of their own abilities and/or their business offers, and they are seeking a benchmark by asking others what they think or suggest, to find a safer route to be ‘palatable’ to the masses.

We all feel inadequate at one point or another in our lives. 

Instead of seeking approvals from people who are not in your target market, get your validation process in order, by directly connecting with your customers and peers.  Otherwise, you are getting consensus on something your buyers don’t care about.

That’s just the first step.  Even when you reach out to prospects or existing customers, keep in mind that you are only validating the outer layer, not the core, meaning you are just checking the temperature in a broad sense.

What goes wrong there is, when you start taking in everything they say you should do because you are unsure, you will risk shipping something no one wants.  

It does call for a fair amount of confidence backed by data to digest their feedback and come up with an offer or a product with a grain of salt rather than incorporating everything they say your business should do.


Insatiable Appetite to Get Attention from Others to Build Up Self-Importance.

These are people who constantly post updates on their social media saying,

“Look at me with XYZ at ABC!”
“Look at me and my family doing XYZ!”
“Look at me going to XYZ!”

“Look at me, look at me, look at me…”

They want to be admired, liked and paid attention to.  It is their way of filling the gap between what their lives are like and what they want to be perceived.  Or, they feel the need to fill the void within themselves.  In some cases, this is the symptom of much larger issues, but here, we only focus on the negative impact it can have on business.

Needless to say, occasional updates like these to show that there are real humans behind your business can have a positive effect. It is because the motive is based on “providing what buyers crave.” This is different from fulfilling your own needs and wants first.

In business, this relentless effort to seek likability to satisfy self-importance is a big turn-off to customers who could otherwise be helped by their solutions. Might as well, it should just be a hobby.


Fear of Being Alienated.

Stating one’s position openly on an issue or a view requires courage.  We are gregarious creatures, and we don’t want to be cast-outs from the group we want to be part of.  This fear is real. 

Funny as it may seem, when I face this, I have a message for myself: 

“You aren’t that unique. There is a group of people who, more or less, think the way you do.
So, get on with it.”

This, I highly recommend you try.

Fear of facing confrontations can also be added under this category.  In many occasions, I was told that an option to have a conversation (with another party) should be avoided because of the person I am exploring this option with is “not good with confrontations.”

As a strategist, I had to ask, “What makes you to believe this conversation is going to be confrontational? Does it have to be?”

Somehow the mind was already made up that it would call for confrontations. But in many cases, that’s not a fact. This made-up belief derives from the fear of being one’s vulnerability being exposed as well as one’s lack of confidence in negotiation.

“Not good with confrontations” only means the person believes he or she only sees the outcome to be either “with me” or “against me.”  Of course, if you make it to be the case, you will navigate your conversation accordingly.  As a result, it will be about “with you” or “against you.”

Your choice.


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Constantly Doing “Compare and Despair.”

I kept this separate from #1 as there is a slight difference between the two.

People who constantly compare themselves to others, in a way, compete with others are consumed by keeping scores, which is different from constantly seeking validations from others as they are permission-seekers.

“They just shipped, so we need to ship now.”
“They are getting more sign-ups. We need to double that.”
“We are not where they are at, but we should be.”

The game of entrepreneurship is about bettering ourselves to serve others.  If you feel the need to compete, then compete with yourself. The need to feel better than others is another way of letting fears take over.


Fear of Being Wrong.

This can be rephrased as “Fear of Being Judged.”  No one likes haters. Having a thought of someone pointing a finger at you and say, “That’s crap,” can be truly devastating.

But at the same time, having this thought all the time and thinking that you want to opt for something safe will be a sure way to put your business in the “miscellaneous” category that no one cares for.

I like the advice of “being good at being wrong.”  This promotes transparency.  What’s the worst thing that can happen by voicing your own take?  Unless you are a judge mistakenly convicting an innocent person, you can always say, “There is something new that came to light, and I take back what I said previously.”

Not a big deal.  

Now let’s take a step back for a second. Before we even worry about being wrong or being called out for offering something crappy, some suggest rewriting the entire script.

If your narrative is, “No one will like what we created. No one will buy this stuff.”  You flip it entirely to say, “Everyone will love what we created. Everyone will buy this stuff,” only to realize this scenario is equally possible.

If that sounds less convincing to you, as it seems to me at times, I have another suggestion. Ask yourself,

“Have I ever trolled someone around to criticize and to call out their stuff is crap?”

Chances are, you don’t have time for that. Would it be safe to say people don’t have time for that, either? 

Food for thought.

If you invested your resources to confirm (or deny) your hypotheses about your business approach & solutions, it’s time to stick a stake in the sand with confidence. 


Why Striving to be Likable is a Complete Waste of Time for Your Business.

It may seem harder to achieve relatability because you know you are not going to please everyone.

But on the other side, winning a mass audience by creating ‘stickiness’ is extremely difficult for small business operators and entrepreneurs without a large marketing and advertising budget to blow through.

Another important fact is that any “mass-adaptation” starts small.  Even if you score a commercial spot during Super Bowl, you can’t guarantee mass-adaptation.  The brands you see there do not even aim “mass-adaptation” as the goal of their commercials after throwing in a few cool millions is “top of mind.”

Yes, I know. All that for just being top of people’s mind…

Better yet, most of businesses that are non-mega-corporations don’t even require mass-adaptation to be profitable. So, why do you even bother aiming to be likable?

Think of Airbnb and its humble beginning.  Start with a core, loyal group rather than trying to please a mass.

Don’t be James Cameron.  Be Tim Burton.

Don’t be Coke. Be La Croix.

You get the idea.  

In case you aren’t convinced, here are the main reasons striving to be likable is a waste of your resources.


1. Less memorable.

2. Make less desirable business decisions. 

3. Unable to manage your team effectively due to OPUD or due to being vague,

4. Unable to raise your price.

5. Harder to be a category leader or a new category creator.


Less Memorable

In HBO’s hit show, “The Wire,” the gangster, Stringer Bell, goes on and on to make a point as to why no one remembers a 40-degree day (and why he is dissatisfied.)

Caution: Adult language involved. Please put your earbuds on & be sure no kids are around…


Stringer Bell explains what a 40 degree day is.


Buyers are looking for solutions. They are not looking for nice people to hang out with. It pays to provide exceptional customer experience to those buyers. For sure. But once again, making lukewarm statements about your business would add no value to your prospective customers since they will just forget about what they saw or heard a few seconds later.


Make Less Desirable Business Decisions.

If you are preoccupied with the desire of being liked, your decision-making process will likely be clouded. 

Instead of being resourceful to your customers, you may spend more time figuring out “what it means to you and how it makes you feel.”  Not a good place to operate a business.

This is when fear of losing or missing out creeps in.  As I detailed in my post, “Clients from Hell,” not managing undesirable customers or clients due to fear of being unpopular to them induces a high cost in your business.

Majority of business decisions tend to be counter-intuitive. Making proactive changes to grow your business, more often than not, calls for decisions that are not going please everyone. 


Unable to Manage Your Team Effectively due to OPUD or due to Being Vague.

Business owners with a tendency of people-pleasing has both risks, external risks and internal risks.  

As I touched on OPUD (over-promise, under-deliver) in my previous post, what you want to do always, is UPOD (under-promise, over-deliver) externally and internally.

For a spur of the moment, some business owners promise things that look good on them not realizing how much it would take to make it happen.  Another case is that they may promise something to their employees because they feel guilty.

Imagine you OPUD with your employees because you feel guilty or want to avoid being “unpopular” among them.

It can turn into the cause of unfair treatment to some employees i.e. making exceptions to the rules you set for your team.  One thing leads to another, you lose track of what you promised to whom as you handle them on a case-by-case basis. 

Some opportunistic employees will see it as a chance to milk it as much as possible.  Some will feel unfairly treated.  In the end, you are unnecessarily over-complicating your Human Capital Management strategy.


Unable to Raise Your Price.

Because your business will have a hard time standing out from your competitors by being safe (and trying to be likable), you will risk a chance of racing to the bottom. It turns into the volume game.

Let’s quickly recap the concept of why aiming for a mass-adaptation as a small business owner or an entrepreneur won’t work.  To capture a mass audience, you need to spend a lot of resources upfront to reach them let alone convincing them.  To persuade, you may be forced to lower the entry barrier by lowering your price.

On the other hand, imagine for a moment - If your business strives to be a selected few’s #1 choice, what would your pricing strategy look like?

They love what you offer intensely.  They would not think for a second to look other places for alternatives.  The ball is in your court.

It would be much easier to raise your price, wouldn’t it?


Harder to be a Category Leader or a New Category Creator.

The whole premise of a category leader or a new category creator is to drastically differentiate themselves from the rest by offering a new approach, a new use of technology (or a new technology altogether), or a need that no one knew existed.

That’s the main concept of “Blue Ocean Strategy” that I mentioned in another post.  This makes “competition irrelevant.”

In order to achieve this, though, it will require you to…differentiate. In order for you to differentiate your offers, you do need to make a clear statement that may not be loved by a mass.  You just cannot be wishy-washy about where your business stands. 

In my “How to Niche Down” post, I outlined how fine dining restaurants operate. The majority of restaurants that makes the Top 50 World’s Best Restaurant only offers a fixed meal with a fixed price. No but’s and no if’s. They are OK to say, “We are not about to compromise the kind of dining experience we offer. If you don’t like it, there are many other options out there.”

It takes courage, the courage to be disliked. 


One Subtle Shift You Can Make in Your Business will Change Everything.

You have the power to shed a light on anything and everything that you choose.  Intuitively, you may have been shedding a light on you and your business to this point.  What you can do, instead, is to shed a light on a group of people (and their businesses) that would benefit immensely from what you have to offer.

If you are consistently shedding a light on yourself, you may be suffering from the likability issue.

If you focus on shedding light on who you serve, you are working towards being more relatable by understanding their needs and offering solutions.

This mental shift will allow you to take yourself out of the equation.  It takes loads off your shoulders to know that the light is not on you.  The light is on people your business is trying to help.

I am not going to discuss extensively here, but there are many ways to approach relatability.  Some may opt for humor, some may opt for bluntness, some will go as far as to being polarizing. 

Mind you, deciding how to approach relatability is also NOT solely based on your preference (unless you have the celebrity status.)  It needs to satisfy both:

1.     What your prospects and customers resonate,

2.     It is aligned with your business vision and value.


After reading this post and you feel that you may have put too much emphasis on being “likable,” now you can look at your business differently from the pro-relatable perspective.

The Courage to be Disliked – Take a Stand

Keep in mind:  The cost of playing safe outweighs the risk of standing out. So, no more flip-flopping based on your innate desire to be liked.  You must commit to serve a selected group of people and not worry about what the rest would think.

Whether you grew up in the society of conformity, start questioning each statement you make in your head that starts from “I should…” 

Well, should you?  Why?  Why is that to be true?  Is that a fact?  What is the worst thing that can happen if not?

This is a doable way to start dismantling your old belief that leads to your desire to be liked and accepted.  The effect is contagious, liberating, freeing and you will notice more people will start approaching you to say how you and your offer have made an enormous difference in their lives.