Voice and Influence Program, session 6: Power and Influence

This week’s Voice and Influence programme was on the topic of Power and Influence. We discussed various social signals that position someone in an authoritative “high” position, versus those for an approachable “low” position. There is a need to recognise when one position is more beneficial to you as an influential voice. As a rule-of-thumb, authoritative signals as a speaker and approachable signals as a listener.

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Demonstrating high and low poses.

Demonstrating high and low poses.

It may seem obvious, but often people act authoritative as a listener, which can be naturally interpreted as arrogance or contempt. This is not a good way to boost your social standing in a conversation or the office. On the other hand, acting approachable, or humble, as a speaker shows anxiousness about the message that you intend to convey. If you are unsure of yourself, your boss or potential client is going to lose faith in you too.

So-called high signals include physical expansiveness —broad chest, feet firmly down and pointing outwards— as well as psychological traits. A person in the authoritative social mode will hold firm eye contact to show direction of intention (“I’m speaking to you, yes you.”). They speak without ambiguity, the entire information intended is made explicit. For example, there is a difference between

“Today I will explain the harmful effects of farming on climate change”, and

“Today I’ll talk about climate change. I’ll also talk about how farming affects it, and in ways it might be bad.”

These are both complete sentences grammatically, but one message is bolder, more direct, and more certain than the other. The latter sentence does not convey the veracity of climate change, or your authority as speaker. Worse still, if you mumble, or talk in stubs, and fail to even complete grammatically your sentences, or if you trail off and look away, you’ve lost your authority status on whatever you were trying to say. There is no need to use long sentences, unless the point you are making requires a lot of adjectives and adverbs. Subclauses often make sentences long while blurring two messages together. A confident authority will say what they what to say directly and with meaning, no more and no less.

A less obvious signal of authoritative speech that the Michelle R Clayman Institute for Gender Research suggest is to not monitor the responses of others. This is a risky move so let’s break it down a bit with an example. Have you ever picked your nose and then immediately looked around to see if anyone saw you? When we do something that we feel an interlocutor would grimace at us for, metaphorically or otherwise, we have a strong desire to monitor other’s reactions, to assure ourselves that they didn’t notice your faux pas. Another example is sneaking into a restaurant to use the toilet. Notice that in these cases, if we had acted totally comfortable and casual, people would be less likely to notice or even care. The take-home message is that worrying too much about what other people think proves to the world that you are not a leader. It should go without saying that a good leader should listen to other people, especially their peers and clients, and monitor their behaviour to detect their own social signals precisely. But, you should be able to do that without being seen-to be seeking their validation. If you mess-up socially, reacting to other people only cements the error. Never touch your face without a good reason.

With all that said, there IS a time and place for playing low, for being humble and approachable. When you genuinely need the help or advice of someone, there is no shame in playing the lowly but likeable client. People are more likely to warm to you and pull you up if you show deference to them. Ways to do this include: shrinking your shoulders and nodding your head slightly, purposely being tentative with your questions, ask more questions than assertions, and smiling and nodding along. When taking the authoritative role, people prefer to be looked-up to as a kind of teacher. If you can make eye contact regularly but not continuously, you show attentiveness but not dominion.

Try talking to your peer and swapping high and low roles. You should be able to feel the roles come to life organically. These traits are deeply ingrained in our social psyche. As a bonus, try both playing high and both playing low. You should notice the friction occur. When both party and counterparty play high at the same time, tension arises. Roughly 7% of how we judge our interlocutor’s position is based on the content of their messages, the rest is comprised of these non-propositional social cues discussed so far.

Women, especially, can face challenges due to the following tautology: we expect people to act like how we expect them to act like. When our expectations conflict with the data presented in front of us, creating cognitive conflict, our first reaction is to reinterpret the data. It’s mentally easier than revisiting our beliefs. If I see a person standing in my room at night, when I was alone in my house when I went to bed, I can either revise my belief that I am alone, or I can reinterpret my vision into a hallucination. The converse of this is confirmation bias, where we remember the few occasions where something happened that confirms our prior beliefs and conveniently forget those that conflict. Returning to power and influence, there are some people who find it hard to believe that women can be authoritative speakers or leaders. As such, when a woman portrays the high traits described above, she can be misinterpreted as being angry, hysterical, or “bitchy”. This characterisation fits the pre-held biases that some people have of women. When we meet people with these biases, and that includes almost all of us some of the time, we should challenge the beliefs themselves.

It is perfectly possible for women to have important contributions to work, debates or management, just as possible as with other people in fact. This fact should become apparent to anyone eventually. Be openly proud of what you can accomplish, in the face of people who may hold prejudices against you. Hopefully, they’ll come to appreciate everyone equally in terms of their individual merits. There is a workplace deficit of female leaders, especially in science and technology, hopefully we’ll see that change in our lifetimes.

As a final thought, and this wasn’t mentioned in our Voice and Influence talk but I would like to note it on a personal level. The converse problem happens for men too: that they are assumed to be in control and “have it all together” and should “man-up” even when, in fact, they are in need of a leg-up. It can be demoralising when I try to convey a “low” state, such as fear and sadness, only to have one’s biases redefine it as pensiveness, or solemness. This is the inverse problem to women, men break people’s presumptive bias when they are trying to play low. The biases that people come to men with can be as damaging as the biases that people come to women with. Oftentimes, our attempts at humility are interpreted as a joke, or sarcasm, or even —and this is so much worse— as “cute”. Instead of someone who needs an emotional or social boost, we can be read as the lovable nice guy.

Gregory Fenn
31st March 2017