Adrian was frustrated.
After working in sales at a major manufacturing company for four years, he had been passed over for promotion twice. The selection committee wouldn’t give him a clear answer as to why, and he struggled to understand where exactly he needed to improve. He also felt like he was the odd man out at the office, always on the edge of the social circles that developed around the bullpen. On top of that, he found himself struggling to get the resources he needed to do his job well — a helping hand, a piece of data, some extra budget — all of which his peers seemed to acquire much more easily.
But it’s not like his colleagues didn’t treat him well. They invited him out to drinks, included him in team meetings, and recognized him for his contributions. He wasn’t being targeted or ostracized. He wasn’t being iced out or pawned off. His performance reviews were above average, his conversations were polite, his supervisors acknowledged his efforts.
He just knew, deep down, that something was off.
That’s when he reached out to me.
After spinning his wheels for months trying to diagnose the issue, we dissected all of these interactions to figure out what was going on beneath the surface.
And what we eventually found was that while Adrian was appreciated at work, he wasn’t deeply liked. He had his colleagues’ courtesy, but not their solidarity. He had his supervisors’ validation, but not their loyalty. And the obvious signs of being well-liked — like being invited to happy hour or being complimented for his deliverables — only painted part of the picture.
The rest of the picture depended on much more subtle signs — signs that are important for anyone in any career to track if they want to thrive, rise up, and become essential.
That’s what we’ll be talking about in this piece: signs that you’re not truly and meaningfully well-liked at work — and what you can do to change that.
Starting with one of the most common indicators, which is that…
You’re not getting promoted and you don’t know why.
Failing to get promoted at work over a long period of time is usually the most obvious sign that something is off in your career. But even more telling is not getting promoted and not having a clear understanding of why.
When Adrian and I talked, he told me about the feedback the selection committee gave him after the last promotion round.
“You need to focus more on actionable recommendations than broad solutions,” said one committee member.
“I’d distribute your bandwidth more efficiently across your projects,” said another.
“Manage expectations,” offered a third.
Which isn’t the worst feedback in the world — if you can overlook the super cringe corporate speak. (I obviously can’t. And that’s why I created my own show where anyone who uses buzzwords like “synergy” or “next-gen” gets roasted in the group Slack!)
But those recommendations didn’t give Adrian something concrete to lock onto, something specific he could work on in the coming year. At first he thought that the higher-ups were being vague because they were afraid to tell him the truth. Only after we explored his conversations did he start to wonder if they actually cared enough to truly help him. That was a hard reality to accept, but it explained a lot of his interactions with his managers.
If you don’t have a solid, clear, practical understanding about why you’re not getting ahead at work, then that’s a red flag.
Because it means that not only are you not climbing up the ladder, you’re also not being taken seriously enough to be given the information you need to get there.
And being taken seriously — even when it comes in the form of difficult news — is another key indicator that you’re well-liked and well-connected at work.
Think of it this way.
If you’re not getting promoted, but you are getting a ton of meaningful feedback about how to improve, then that probably means your managers want you to improve. It means they intend for you to rise up, they want you to have the data you need to grow, and they’re hoping you’ll know what to do with that information. It might be disappointing to be passed over, but if you’re receiving a strong development plan, that’s really a vote of confidence in disguise.
But if you’re not being promoted and then you’re being given the runaround about why, then your managers are implicitly saying that they don’t want to set you up to succeed down the line. (Or that they’re too busy focusing on their own careers, or too distracted putting out their own fires, or too important to offer meaningful feedback — which, ultimately, amounts to the same thing.)
That’s why it doesn’t always make sense to judge the quality of your career solely on whether you got a single raise or promotion. A much better barometer of your success is whether you’re being invested in, whether you’re being set up to be promoted in the future.
So if you find yourself unclear, confused, or completely in the dark about why you’re not getting ahead — and why other people are getting ahead instead of you — then that’s a sign that something needs to change.
Another sign that something needs to change is when…
You feel disconnected, disengaged, or out of the loop.
Most people assess their careers using external metrics: salary, bonuses, performance ratings, sales targets, and so on. And these are important metrics, for sure.
But there’s another metric — a more qualitative one — that also tells you a lot about your standing in the office: your subjective experience at work every day.
How’s your mood at the end of the day? Do you feel connected to the people you work with? Are you inspired? Do you feel supported? Are you, on most days, finding your purpose?
Adrian talked about this a lot in our conversation — how the external indicators of his job performance were decent, but that he just didn’t feel like he had a strong relationship to his work and his team. We dug into that together and found that his instinct was dead-on — and full of useful information.
Now, we have to pause here, because we all know our intuition can easily misfire. So this sign can get a little tricky.
For example, a rockstar employee with severe imposter syndrome might doubt whether anyone at the office really trusts them — whether they even deserve their job in the first place — even if they’re crushing it. That doesn’t mean they’re actually failing. It just feels like they are, because they’ve failed to internalize their accomplishments.
Our instincts can also misfire when we’re in a company culture that isn’t a good fit. In a cutthroat office full of people you don’t vibe with, it’s easy to worry that everyone hates you, when in reality your managers are just miserable, your colleagues resent you for performing well, and the company is struggling overall. The environment you’re in counts for a lot.
And, of course, our personal lives spill into work all the time. If you just went through a bad breakup, fell into debt, or got into a fight with your dad, then you probably won’t feel very upbeat about work. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re falling short in your career. You have to separate out your feelings about your life in general from your subjective experience of your workplace specifically.
In other words, making sense of this signal isn’t as simple as thinking, “I don’t feel very optimistic these days, therefore I must not be well-liked at work.” But taking stock of your day-to-day experience does yield important data about how you’re perceived at the office.
So if you’re spending a lot of time at work feeling anxious, confused, or marginalized, then that’s a signal worth paying attention to. These feelings might even border on paranoia. Do people hate me? Am I about to get fired? Is there something going on here that I don’t know? These thoughts usually signal that you’re not closely connected to your colleagues, you’re not getting valuable information, and you’re not truly finding fulfillment in your work.
Whereas if you’re feeling excited, motivated, and well-utilized at work — even if those experiences create their own kind of stress — that probably means you’re connected to your coworkers, you’re supported by your managers, and you’re a valued member of the team.
Our instincts tell us whether we’re valued, respected, and liked within an organization.
As social creatures, we know when we’re truly connecting with a coworker or just skating the surface of a conversation. We sense when a manager is taking us seriously and when they’re treating us with kid gloves. We intuit when a selection committee is truly invested in our success or just paying us lip service. We’re basically wired to pick up on how we fit into the social fabric of our world. And those signals rarely misfire.
So if you’re feeling disconnected, disengaged or out of the loop — if you’re feeling a persistent low-grade anxiety that something’s off — then I would pay attention to that experience.
Those feelings don’t necessarily mean that the fault lies entirely with you, of course. But if you feel this way for a long period of time, like Adrian did, then it almost certainly means that your relationships and reputation need some work. That could be because your colleagues aren’t thoughtful enough to invest in you. Or it could be because you aren’t performing in a way that inspires them to invest in you.
It’s your job to find out which one of those scenarios applies to you. But the first step is acknowledging that your subjective experience at work is trying to tell you something crucial about the quality of your career.
You’re only focused on yourself.
We’ve talked a lot about the importance of improving your perception at work, so this final indicator might seem like a contradiction. But as important as it is to be well-regarded in your career, it’s just as important — in some cases even more important — to be invested in how your colleagues are perceived, too. People who focus only on themselves eventually stall out in their careers.
Interestingly, high performers often fall prey to this mistake. They think that by focusing exclusively on their own careers, they’ll be rewarded by their bosses, and they won’t need to worry about other people. And for a period of time, that philosophy does seem to work.
But in the process, they sacrifice something else: the support, expertise, and solidarity of their peers. They hit all the external metrics of success, but they fail to relate to other people in a way that creates loyalty, rapport, and commitment. Eventually, that gap becomes a real liability, especially when they finally reach a level where they need those relationships — for example, when they start managing other people, building a team, or trying to meet ambitious new goals.
This sign is also tricky, because it can be hard to detect. If you start to rise up at work, then your colleagues will probably think twice about letting you know how they really feel. They might hide their true opinions about you, praise your accomplishments, and work even harder for your approval. Meanwhile, they might be growing resentful of your self-interest and talking to one another about you behind your back. And the more you rise up, the more incentive your colleagues will have to be political, and the more insulated from that feedback you’ll become. And that, in a nutshell, is one of the biggest liabilities that high performers face.
Interestingly, this ended up happening to Adrian, too.
After he realized that he needed to work on his profile in the office, he hunkered down, asked his bosses point-blank about where he needed to improve, and created an ambitious development plan for himself. For the next nine months, he put every ounce of energy into improving his deliverables, working on his leadership skills, and understanding his industry better. The next year, he finally landed that promotion he wanted so badly.
But as he climbed the ladder, Adrian found that he still felt disconnected from several of his colleagues. This was a different feeling from before, though. Whereas earlier he felt that his colleagues didn’t feel strongly about him at all, he now felt like they did have a strong opinion — and not always a favorable one. He sensed a new tension with a few of his colleagues, and even found that one of them was actually undermining him behind his back.
We talked again, and eventually figured out what was going on.
In the process of taking himself more seriously, Adrian had forgotten to take the people around him seriously, too. Then, once he rose up, he didn’t have the support he needed to fully thrive in his role. His personal ambition, while healthy and important, wasn’t balanced with an investment in the people around him.
People who are exclusively focused on themselves will never be universally liked at work, no matter how well they perform.
This is true in every industry, every workplace, and every role. It’s also true in friendship, in family, and in love. The only way to be truly connected to other people is to help them succeed alongside you. If you don’t, then these relationships will eventually wither (and, in many cases, sour), because they aren’t being nurtured. That’s basically what happened to Adrian.
So while you might not always feel this sign on a subjective level, it’s worth tracking this indicator. All you have to do is to ask yourself: Am I only focused on my life right now? Or am I also carving out time to focus on the people around me? Am I finding a way to use my success to help other people get ahead? Or am I only focused on advancing my own career?
If you realize that you haven’t been investing in your colleagues enough — by championing them in meetings, offering new perspectives, making introductions for them, or just getting to know them better as people — then it’s very possible that you aren’t very well-liked at work. (Or, at the very least, you’re not as well-liked as you could be). And if you’re not, then that’s almost certainly holding you back in some way.
And to be clear, I’m not talking about politics or politeness; I’m not recommending that you pay lip service to mentorship or keep up appearances as the “nice guy” at work. I’m talking about making a genuine effort to care about your bosses, peers, and subordinates in the same way that you care about yourself — knowing that their success is ultimately tied to your own.
Cultivating relationships in this way is probably the most powerful way to improve your perception at work. It also addresses all of the other indicators we’ve been talking about — understanding why you’re not getting ahead, feeling more connected and essential, and having access to the resources you need to get ahead.
Which brings us to the real question.
How to Be Well-Liked at Work
Now that we’ve talked about all these indicators, let’s talk briefly about what to do with them. How do you actually get the data you need to rise up? How can you improve your mood and experience at the office? How do you become more connected to your colleagues?
These are the questions Adrian and I explored together, and we found that the solutions fell into three main categories.
Advocate for the information you need.
As we saw, people who are well-liked tend to enjoy more access to the data they need to grow. People who aren’t as well-liked are often deprived of that information, or given a version of the facts that isn’t all that helpful.
To rewrite that dynamic, I recommend booking a meeting with your managers to discuss your development. Tell them that you want to become the best possible employee, contribute as much as you can to the team, and put in the work to rise up. Then explain that in order to do that, you’d like to have a better understanding of where you need to grow. Be clear, be specific, and be open. Then sit back, listen carefully, and take notes.
Now, it’s possible that your managers will be reluctant to speak to you this directly, so I recommend giving them permission to be blunt. Tell them that you take your career seriously and want the full story — there’s no need to sugarcoat their feedback or pull any punches. As they talk, draw them out, and don’t let them fall back on euphemisms or buzzwords. Promise yourself that you won’t leave this meeting until you have 3-5 specific, practical, crystal clear recommendations for how to improve, and some resources for how to pursue them.
In some cases, just having this conversation can rewrite your manager’s entire perception of you. That’s actually what Adrian found. The moment he summoned the courage to ask for the information he needed, his managers began taking him more seriously. He still had to put in the work, of course. But he could immediately sense a shift in how his bosses treated him.
(And that’s a good principle to keep in mind no matter what. Sometimes when we’re not happy with the way people treat us, we need to change the way we treat them. We often resent people for not giving us the resources we need, but by not speaking up, we’re signaling to them that we don’t really need those resources at all. Funny how that works, right? Rewriting this pattern is crucial, and it begins by having a conversation like this.)
Once you get the information you need, translate it into a specific development plan. Make a list of the books, classes, and certifications you’ll need to explore. Write down the goals, KPIs, and experiences that will help you perform at the next level, and break those into smaller tasks with deadlines. Block out time on your schedule to do the tasks you’ve been overlooking. Enlist the help of your friends, colleagues, and mentors to keep you accountable. Maybe even run this development plan by your bosses and ask them for their input. If you get their buy-in from the beginning — and then share your progress with them every month or so — you’re much more likely to meet their expectations. It’ll also be hard for them to deny that you’ve done the work when the next promotion round comes.
So push for the data you need. Fight for the advice you want. If you do, you’ll be signaling that you’re determined to grow, and you’ll be better armed to rise up. And if you still struggle to get ahead after that, then at least you’ll know that you did everything you could, and you’ll be a stronger candidate because of it. Then you can look for a company that truly recognizes your contributions.
Take accountability for your thoughts, feelings, and moods.
How you feel at work is both a reflection and a driver of the quality of your career. Anxious, resentful, avoidant, or otherwise negative people tend to struggle more at the office, while trusting, supportive, curious, and generally positive people tend to thrive. These moods can tell you a lot about how you’re perceived in the workplace.
But how you feel on a day-to-day level also affects your deliverables, your personal style, your relationships — your whole outlook, really. So if you’re going to improve your standing at work, you have to take ownership of your experience.
What does it mean to take ownership of your experience?
For one thing, it means paying close attention to what you think and how you feel at work, and getting curious about what those beliefs and moods are trying to teach you.
If you’re being avoidant, whom or what are you avoiding, and why? If you’re feeling envious, what do you wish you could do, be, or have? If you’ve been depressed or apathetic for a while, what about your career is making you feel hopeless or bored? Acknowledging these experiences can be a little tedious or distressing sometimes, but they contain priceless information for you to mine.
To really make sense of that data, I recommend keeping a “work journal.” At the end of every day, I would take five minutes to write down 3-5 bullet points about what you accomplished, what you struggled with, and anything interesting that went down on your team. Next to that, I would track a few key indicators — your enthusiasm about your work, your relationships with your colleagues, and your overall mood — and rate them from 1-5 (1 being “terrible” and 5 being “amazing”).
If you do this every day for a month, you’ll become much more in touch with your day-to-day experience. You’ll bring unconscious thoughts to conscious awareness, you’ll acknowledge feelings you might have been suppressing, and you’ll start to take your thoughts much more seriously. You’ll also be able to see whether your experience is trending up or down over time, which will help you decide whether it’s time to make a change. Sometimes when we’re not sure how to improve our professional lives, it’s because we don’t actually know how we really feel. This simple ritual will fix that.
Taking accountability for your experience also means accepting that your thoughts and feelings won’t magically change on their own.
If you’re frustrated about not being well-liked at work, stewing in your frustration won’t automatically make people like you. (In fact, as we all know, it’ll do the opposite.) But if you acknowledged that frustration, expressed it to the right people, and took action toward changing your perception at work, then you’d be putting that feeling to productive use. And you’d feel the gratification and empowerment that come with taking your experience into your own hands.
So if you’re wrestling with how people perceive you, and you notice that it’s giving rise to some uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, I urge you to give them some airtime. That means acknowledging them — first to yourself, ideally using your work journal. Then I would carve out some time (literally blocking an hour or two out on your calendar every week) to explore them. You can do this on your own, or with a friend, colleague, mentor, or therapist. As you talk things out, try to understand the roots of these thoughts and feelings, what you think they’re trying to teach you, what they’re pushing you to consider. Finally, translate those experiences into concrete action. That might mean coming up with a development plan, working on your personal style, investing in your social skills, taking your peers out to lunch, or even looking for a new job.
Every situation calls for a different solution, of course. The key here is to turn these psychological insights into actionable steps that make sense for you. That’s how you can turn these “signs” into data points, these “setbacks” into opportunities.
Invest in your relationships.
Taking a genuine interest in your colleagues is hands-down the most effective way to improve your perception and experience at work. Investing in other people gives you access to better information, makes you feel more connected and engaged, and allows your colleagues to empathize and identify with you. Strong networking also creates significant long-term advantages beyond just getting promoted.
So start investing in your relationships around the office. Ask your teammates how they’re doing, where they’re struggling, what they need to succeed — then find concrete ways to help them meet those needs. Notice when your managers could use some help — more research, extra time, a key introduction — and make an effort to fill those gaps. Take a genuine interest in your colleagues’ lives, both in and out of the office, and consider being a friend as well as a coworker to them. When you learn something new, create a useful tool or find a helpful solution, share it with the people around you. Spread your value around. Be generous with your assets.
The real key here is to start caring about other people as much as you care about yourself. For specific techniques and systems to manage your relationships, I recommend checking out our (completely free) Six Minute Networking course. Over time, these investments will compound in a very real way — not just in your current job, but over your entire career.
If you do this consistently, you’ll find that a lot of these indicators will begin to trend upward. You’ll become closer with people who can offer you meaningful feedback (who are often the same people making promotion decisions). You’ll start to be included in key decisions (which will make your case for promotion much stronger). And you’ll redirect the energy you spent feeling anxious or resentful toward helping other people (which will improve your mood and help them see you as a positive, productive person who deserves to get ahead).
Ultimately, Adrian embraced all of these solutions, and got the win he had been seeking from the very beginning: a promotion. But he only got promoted because he finally decided to take himself and the people around him seriously. He didn’t just get ahead because he was a proactive employee, but because he brought that proactivity to everything he did — starting with the willingness to confront just how well-liked he actually was, and what that sign really meant for him.
[Featured photo by whoislimos]