My Leadership Fails: Power, Status & Accidental Arrogance

Rescuer Dark LegacyFirst impressions count!

The success of boardroom negotiations, job interviews, sales calls and first dates often hinge on those first few moments…..
Have you ever had a bad vibe about someone you just met? Something was not quite right… they may have seemed vague, elusive, confused, or maybe over-confident, arrogant, stuck-up. Alternatively have you ever been surprised by feedback suggesting you gave off a vibe completely opposite to how you were feeling?

My Accidental Arrogance

I remember a public speaking event I did where I felt scared and anxious, yet people later told me (and the comments on my feedback sheets also confirmed) that I sounded arrogant and dismissive!!?? Afterwards I was confused and even more anxious about public speaking – worried about giving off the wrong impression. It took years for me to fully understand what I was doing wrong. Eventually I overcame my accidental arrogance once I fully understood the concepts of personal power and the status dynamic.

Personal Power

Amy Cuddy is one of my heroes. Not only for her personal story of overcoming a serious head injury to regain an academic career; not only for her brilliant research on the psychology of power, influence, nonverbal communication and prejudice, but also her desire to help people improve their self confidence through a technique she calls ‘Power Posing’.

Power Posing is about adopting specific powerful postures prior to communicating (i.e., body outstretched – arms up in victory; leaning back on a chair fully extended with arms crossed behind your head; or standing tall leaning forwards with your hands on you hips [AKA the ‘Wonder Woman’]). Amy’s research has shown that if you hold a high power pose position for 2-3 minutes your neurochemistry changes, enabling you to appear more assertive and confident regardless of other factors. Conversely, less powerful poses (i.e., sitting slumped or cross legged and hunched over in a chair, or standing with your head looking down and shoulders rolled forwards) change your neurochemistry making you look more timid, vulnerable and afraid.

Amy’s TED talk – which everyone should watch – and encourage their spouse, kids and friends to watch too is one of the most viewed TED talks of all time! As awkward as it felt the first few times I tried adopting power poses as part of my preparation for public speaking the results were compelling. As I went on stage I genuinely felt much calmer and less anxious then previously and this sense of calm usually lasted for most of my presentation. With my nervousness and shaking hands now under control I was off to a good start in overcoming my accidental arrogance – but there was one other important ingredient I needed to understand – the concept of the status dynamic.

The Status Dynamic

The other part of the puzzle to overcome my accidental arrogance involved learning how to shift the status dynamic. Wherever there are two or more people communicating, there is a relationship. Wherever there is a relationship there is a status dynamic where people adopt higher or lower status positions depending upon the circumstances.

As you can see in the diagram, people who are effective High Status communicators are often seen as carrying a sense of confidence in themselves and their capacity to make the right decisions. However if people are high status and ineffective communicators they can be seen as arrogant or unsympathetic. Effective Low Status communicators are seen as actively committed to assisting in the interests of others. However, if people are low status and ineffective, they can come across as inferior or a pushover.

Status Diagram

The Status Dynamic At Work

In healthy relationships, different people adopt high status and low status positions as is appropriate. For example, when a leader is required to determine the outcome of a situation, they must adopt a higher status. They must carry that sense of confidence in themselves and their capacity to make the right decisions. However, when a leader gets stuck in this mode, they run the risk of being seen as inaccessible, uncaring or arrogant. This is unhelpful when others require support, empathy or encouragement to demonstrate the value they bring to the business. There are times when using a lower status encourages confidence and a sense of power in others.

When a leader adopts a lower status they become more accessible, supportive and humble. They can effectively communicate that they are genuinely committed to serving the interests of another, yet to get stuck in a low status mode is to run the risk of being perceived as weak minded, incapable, and inferior. Clearly, the ideal is to have flexibility, using both high and low status as is appropriate to the circumstances.

Importantly, people generally have a default status position where they feel more comfortable or safe – which is either primarily high or low status – and may not be aware of this default position causing them all sorts of problems. Some people resist holding status for fear of appearing to be arrogant or a “tall poppy”. Some resist dropping to a lower status because they don’t want to be perceived to be unimportant or inferior. However people who are comfortable in themselves and highly self aware fear neither high or low status. They have a strong sense of self and the capacity to change their status according to the situation.

Overcoming My Accidental Arrogance

So with a new understanding of how to use power posing as part of my preparation before speaking in order to look and feel confident as a speaker combined with the ability to move between high and low status to show humility and connection with the audience during my presentations I was finally free of my public speaking curse! And the feedback forms and evaluations on my presentations no longer said ‘arrogant’ but rather ‘confident, warm, helpful, enthusiastic’ all words which matched my underlying intentions as a communicator!

Power & Status: Are You Sending The Wrong Message?

Not everyone suffers from accidental arrogance but many of us have accidentally sent the wrong message or given off the wrong vibe to others but could not understand why. Whether we come across too weak or too strong is not just their perception but also something we can influence and control by using power posing to prepare ourselves and shifting the status dynamic when communicating.

It is my sincere hope that if you have struggled like me, you now have some very practical things you can do to make sure you feel empowered and well prepared. I also hope you are able to adopt a flexible approach to communication showing your audience who you genuinely are in both your strength and confidence as well as your commitment and humility!

Ride The Waves of Work!

Dr Pete

The Stress Surfer

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