Being popular could help you be more successful at work -- but not in the way you may think

Will ferrell anchorman 2 news teamGemma LaMana / Paramount PicturesBeing popular at work and in your field can further your career.

You might associate being popular at the office with fake smiling, sucking up to bosses, and playing Machiavellian office politics.

Those tactics may actually boost one kind of popularity — your status — but will likely hurt the other kind: your likability.

And it’s the latter that matters most when it comes to your long-term success, according to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill psychologist Mitch Prinstein, author of the new book “Popular.”

Prinstein told Business Insider that we should indeed try to be more popular in the office — in the sense of being a genuine team player, not a disingenuous manipulator.

Prinstein’s book is based on his course about the psychology of popularity (which itself is quite popular) that he’s taught at Princeton and UNC and through the online learning portal Coursera. The course is based upon decades of behavioural research, including his own.

I’m taking the Coursera class, and in it, Prinstein distinguishes between the two types of popularity mentioned above. There is what he calls social preference (likability) and social reputation (status). It’s the former that we should be working on, and the success we often associate with high status will follow.

“Likability is one of the most valuable commodities, not just in the business world but in all of our social relationships,” Prinstein told us. “We should be investing in it as much as we invest in anything else that we hope will help our lives.”

That doesn’t mean he’s advocating that you abandon your dreams of rising up your company’s hierarchy, or gaining renown in your field. He’s saying you shouldn’t associate success with being a ruthless jerk.

“I think as long as somebody is not pursuing status at the expense of likability, that’s fine,” Prinstein said. “But the easiest ways to gain status are to engage in the things that would thwart likability: to be aggressive, to be focused on oneself, to try and dominate others.” That behaviour, it’s noted in “Popular,” has been found to lead to feelings of loneliness and unhappiness.

In his book, Prinstein points to research that shows that, “The most likable people are those who cooperate with others, are helpful, share, and follow the rules,” and that this behaviour is indeed positively correlated with success.

“I don’t think that means we should try and be submissive or give away our own feelings and beliefs and values just to try and gain approval,” Prinstein clarified for us. In other words, don’t be disingenuous to curry favour.

“But I do think that efforts … to try and do things that are attentive to others’ needs and to show people that we genuinely want to interact with them — not use them for our purposes, but genuinely want to interact with them,” he said.

There is years of research that proves that people who are popular when it comes to social preference are more successful, but you can easily think of examples from your own life and popular culture. “I mean, it’s amazing how much we give the benefit of the doubt to likable people, and how much we are willing to do for them and how much we just naturally think good things about them,” Prinstein said.

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