Deborah Gruenfeld on Acting with Power at Stanford – Transcript
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Deborah Gruenfeld – Joseph McDonald Professor and Professor of Organizational Behavior
Thank you. Thanks Leticia, it’s really nice to be here.
I’d like to start with an observation, which is that most people when preparing for a situation in which you want to have power will start by thinking a lot about what we’re going to say, and we don’t think twice about this it seems reasonable. We assume going into situations like this that it’s better to be right than wrong. We assume that it’s better to be smart, sound smart than not. We assume it’s better to come off competent and critical rather than incompetent and easily misled. And we assume that it’s better to tell people things they didn’t already know than just a repeat back to others what they’ve already said.
I’m not going to tell you that these beliefs are wrong exactly, but what I want to tell you is that they’re not nearly as important as we think they are when it comes to trying to have impact.
What’s really important for you to understand is that people are forming impressions of you and making judgments all the time, in the blink of an eye with their attention on very fleeting aspects of behavior. I want to tell you about just a few findings from my field, which is social psychology, I think lend support to this idea that people may not be listening as carefully to you as you might think.
One of the things that I think you should know is that whether you’re perceived as competent in groups actually has very little to do with the quality of the arguments that you make, but it’s very tightly connected to the quantity arguments that you make. It turns out this has been shown in many studies now the more a person contributes in a conversation, the more status they acquire. And again I’m not going to say this is entirely independent of argument quality, but it’s less tightly connected than we would like to think it is.
You should know also that when we look at personality traits and try to predict status or ascendence to leadership positions in groups, we found another interesting set of patterns. The qualities in people that predict status are not tightly connected at all to how much people know and how good we are articulating what we know. The single strongest predictor of status on a personality level is extroversion. Extroversion is simply the extent to which you’re outgoing and talkative. This is highly predictive of status in both men and women.
I should tell you about a couple of other data points in this chart that you may find interesting.
Neuroticism has an interesting relationship to status. So you can see is a correlational data. Neuroticism is bad for status in men, the good news ladies is it doesn’t matter for us at all. And finally, I just want to point out that, you know, consistent with this idea that your ability to make sound arguments is not the most important predictor of your status. Physical attractiveness is highly predictive of status in almost every situation and here again it looks like this is only true for men, but in fact that’s not true. Physical attractiveness is predictor of status in women as well, but it’s not a linear relationship. So what you’ll see with women is that physical attractiveness helps with status up to a point and then once you’ve passed that threshold, it kind of starts to work against you, which is why you don’t see statistical relationship here.
So the point is just to say, you know, if what we’re doing is relying on our ability to make sound arguments as a basis for attaining status and power, we’re kind of missing the boat. There are very strong predictors of status that have absolutely nothing to do with these qualities.
It turns out that whether your arguments are persuasive also have less to do with their quality than you might think. And to illustrate this point I want to tell you about a study that was done many years ago now, when I’ll tell you a little bit about it you’ll understand how long ago this was. But this was done by a psychologist at Harvard, whose name is Ellen Langer. And what she wanted to understand was when someone asks someone else for a favor, what kinds of requests increase the likelihood of getting a yes. So she had her research assistants go out into the university and visit different office buildings and look for that special place that used to exist in office buildings where there was a room that held one giant photocopier and there was a line of people standing waiting to use it.
So her research assistants went out in search of these lines and their job was to approach the person who is next in line and ask if they could cut in front of them. And they were told to make this request in one of three ways: Either they said may I use the Xerox machine. This is a fairly straightforward request with no justification.
Or they said, may I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush. This is a request with a logical justification. Not a bad reason to let someone cut in front of you.
Or they said, may I use the Xerox machine because I need to make copies. Right, it’s a justification, not the most logical one.
So remember her question is which of these types of requests is going to increase the likelihood of getting a yes. And it turns out that giving a justification made a difference. So if you gave a reason for your request you are more likely to get a yes but the logical reason had no power at all over the reason that had absolutely no value. Right, it’s just another piece of evidence to suggest that people may not be listening as carefully to you as you think they are, as you hoped they would be and that the logic associated with subtleties of your argument may be lost on many people.
One final piece of data I want to share with you is that this is something I think most of us see in our organizations all the time, many arguments are not even heard until the right person makes them. So people are assessing your status before you open your mouth and depending on what they decide either they’re paying attention or they’re not.
So the upshot is that people are making decisions about whether to pay attention to you in a very short period of time. They’re going to decide whether you’re someone who is worthy of their attention in less than a 100 milliseconds. So we need to understand how people do this. If our goal is to have impact, we need to know what are people paying attention to that allows them to make these kinds of assessments.