Certainly you have heard the cliche that you ought to dress for the job that you want, not the job you have. This has been a popular one among the leadership ranks for decades now, and it makes good sense. No one will promote someone into an important leadership role if they don’t appear professional. This is why there is so much emphasis on things like “leadership presence” and “polish”.
But what is the psychology behind this? And how do you apply it beyond just dressing better?
What drives this type of decision making is actually not that complex. On some level, we all tend to hire in our own image. We have developed traits that we identify as our strengths, and we will naturally look for these strengths in others. There isn’t a lot of magic here, but it does mean that you will likely do better looking for hiring managers that are more like how you perceive yourself. That’s not to say that this is 100% and only people like you will hire you, but you will see higher hit rates with individuals and companies who espouse values and strengths similar to yours.
But there are actually more subtle tricks behind this phenomenon that you can learn to help make you more effective in all kinds of settings.
If we are being honest, most of us include a somewhat nondescript “likability” factor in our hiring assessments. We want to hire someone who we like. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and both sides are always aware. This leads to an awkward first-date kind of dance. Some chameleon candidates will charm their way through, while others will come off as inauthentic or insincere. It’s hit or miss whether an over-the-top bevy of jokes and used car salesman smiles will land with individuals.
The question we ought to be asking is how we make ourselves more likable without compromising who we are.
There is an interesting book about improvisation by Keith Johnstone and Irving Wardle called Impro. The book introduces the concept of status, suggesting that an actor’s ability to change his or her status allows him to play different roles and ultimately establish a better rapport with the audience.
So what is status?
Basically, how you carry yourself or conduct your business is status. Some people might have particularly high status. Their posture is always perfect, they don’t fidget when sitting, their eye contact is direct and lasting. These people might speak in a more authoritative tone. You know these people immediately. In a work setting, the meetings they are in will revolve around them. They are likely in very senior positions – think CEO or VP.
Some people might have low status. They could come across as meek or unprepared. They might be a bit more dodgy or evasive. Their eye contact is sparse at best. They speak with a little less confidence, perhaps asking questions rather than stating an opinion. They likely touch their face more frequently (often a hidden tell of how confident people are). Their physical appearance might be a bit more disheveled. They could seem more relaxed or aloof, leaning back in their chair with hands clasped behind their head in the universal sign for “It’s all cool.”
Despite what people naturally think, there is nothing inherently better about any status. Being the confident one in the room does not necessarily make you more effective at all tasks, and it certainly does not necessarily make you an effective leader. We all know people who are in very senior positions but who we would describe as unapproachable. When these people step into an elevator, everyone else averts their eyes, suddenly pulls out their phone, or simply stands in silence. This unapproachability means that the high-status individual is less likely to hear from people across the organization. In the absence of information, the only people who will talk to him are his direct reports who have a long-standing relationship with him.
In a corporate setting, this leads an organization to think that the only people he listens to are the people who have worked with him at other companies. Or worse yet, he develops a reputation for being unengaged of even unsympathetic to the “real issues” in the organization.
The reality can be quite the opposite. It is frequently the case that the leader is not unengaged but rather uninformed. If people don’t feel comfortable speaking, the high-status leader is simply operating in the absence of information. That doesn’t absolve this leader of all responsibility – indeed, it is his own behavior that creates this culture. But it also means that observers need to be aware of what is really going on. By understanding the dynamics, it changes how you might want to interact.
For example, you might be better off standing up and voicing an opinion. If you are clear and articulate, you will stand out. Or you might want to ask open-ended questions to test comfort levels with some topics: What do you think about the organizational culture or corporate morale? Or you might find that a 1:1 request is well-received. Oftentimes, these leaders actually want more interaction but don’t know how to get it.
Be aware – young leaders will tend to think that they want to always have high status. But the reality is that the most effective leaders become status mirrors. They elevate and lower their status based on who they are interacting with. The most effective leaders understand status, and they can adjust theirs (oftentimes subconsciously) to best suit their needs.
When an employee from lower in the organization is around, they might lower their status so the employee feels comfortable. A softer voice, a warmer smile, and a welcoming comment can make someone feel at ease. In a 1:1 meeting, this person might kick their feet up and lean back. The effective leader knows that power is not in making people know you are smart but rather in getting the best out of your team. And if you don’t know how to lower your status when you need to, you might sacrifice the very relationships that will determine your success.
Simply making people feel comfortable changes everything. Some CEOs are revered for their open-door policy despite the fact that they are just as encumbered with day-to-day meetings as any other CEO. Why is is that people will recount fondly these accessible CEOs when they have never actually partaken in one of these legendary 1:1s? It’s because the CEO can relate to people, and that relatability breeds loyalty.
That same approachable CEO might then elevate his status to deal with a customer executive. Strong, decisive, articulate. These help instill confidence. And the effective leader knows when to dial the status up.
But understanding the role of status is not just a tool for CEOs. If you want to get that promotion that you have had your eyes on for awhile, it might be enough to understand your status. You will want to status-match to the people who are responsible for making that decision. If your would-be peers are all more polished, you might do well to pay attention to your dress, your posture, your vocal tones, where you sit in a meeting, and yes, even how frequently you touch your face. Simple changes in your behavior can immediately change how you are perceived, and those perceptions can have a tremendous impact on your career path.
With that said, here are a few of the things that affect status that I coach people on. Some are almost so simple that I feel guilty offering them up as advice:
- If you want to be in management, dress how managers in your company dress. If you are a flip-flops and jeans company, go for it. But if you notice all the management folks wearing slacks, then you might need to make a wardrobe change.
- Sit at or near the middle of the table in meetings where it is appropriate. So many people come into a conference room and sit at the edges or, worse yet, along the back. Sit at the table like you belong there.
- Put the phone and the laptop away. In meetings, nothing says talent quite like being engaged. If you are constantly buried in your electronic leash, you won’t show up as strongly in the meeting.
- Don’t use your “presentation voice” when talking. People frequently go into robot mode when they talk to executives. They get nervous and lose all their charisma and authenticity. As a check, make sure you are actually smiling when you are talking. If you immediately go dark, chances are you have lowered your status.
- Use peoples’ names. People frequently don’t say the first name of their superiors. It’s a weird dynamic really. Simply addressing people as peers raises your status. And don’t be afraid to ask questions during those informal moments before and after a meeting. It’s fine to ask about weekend plans or hobbies or kids.
- Watch the F-bombs. It’s good to be relaxed, but when you are too relaxed, you run the risk of lowering your status beyond the point that even the most effective leaders can mirror. This puts you on an island. The occasional bomb is fine, but if it’s too much, be careful.
Talk slowly – more slowly than you think. When people get nervous, they talk very fast. It immediately lowers your status. Similarly, avoid monologuing and repeating yourself. These both lower status as well.[Today’s fun fact: The Eisenhower interstate system requires that one mile in every five must be straight. These straight sections are usable as airstrips in times of war or other emergencies.]