Deborah Gruenfeld on Acting with Power at Stanford (Full Transcript)

Full text of Deborah Gruenfeld on Acting with Power at Stanford conference.

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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.

If you want to predict the content of the impressions that people form of other people, you can look at the independent effects of three different aspects of our behavior. You can look at the impact of our words, you can look at the impact of how we use our voices, independent of our words, and you can look at the impact of these very subtle nonverbal cues the way we use our eyes, the way we stand, the types of gestures that we use and what you’ll find over and over again in the research is that your words account for only 10% or less of the variance in the impressions that people form.

So the vast majority of social meaning, the vast majority of the meaning that people take away from their interaction with you comes from these physical ways of behaving and nonverbal behaviors that most of us are almost never thinking about at all.

Something you should know about this as well, I think is really important to understand is that in those circumstances where our verbal messages and nonverbal messages are misaligned. People will remember what your body told them. So it’s really important I think to develop a kind of conscious awareness of some of these things, which most of us don’t have.

I want to make the suggestion that there is actually a body language of power and we know it. But we know it so well we don’t know we know it. So what’s happened from the day most of us are born is that we’re socialized by the people who care about us to learn to use our bodies in ways that allow us to show others that we know our place. We learn how to use our bodies in ways to gain their respect of other people, we learn how to use our bodies in ways that tell people not to mess around with us, and it’s such a basic aspect of our culturalization and socialization that we learn to use our bodies to negotiate social hierarchy without any conscious awareness and the fact that this is what we’re doing.

I want to make a suggestion that very small, subtle changes in our physical behavior can have a tremendous impact actually. Not only on the perceptions that other people have of us, but on our own psychology.

I don’t have time right now to go into all the different physical determinants or that the ways in which we display power and status or non-verbal behavior, I’m going to talk about that later today. But let me just address one very important and common differentiating physical activity.

If you look at the behavior of high and low-ranking group members, both in animals and in humans, one of the most striking differences is that you’ll notice that high-ranking group members use their bodies in much more physically expansive ways than lower ranking members do. So you can see in both these pictures what a high-ranking group member will do is make their body large, take up as much space as they’d like. They get — the high-ranking member gets to define the way space gets used. And you’ll see an expansive body postures basically where the arms and legs are held outside the body as a way of making the footprint bigger.

Lower-ranking group members do the opposite, you’ll see contraction of the body. So the limbs come closer to the body and you’ll see as you do in both of these pictures there’s often a bowing, nodding, a dipping down as a way of making a footprint smaller.

What you need to understand about this is the reason that we use these behaviors as I mentioned before is to signal to other people that were not actually interested in having a fight. We use these things to actually get along with other people. And the impact of our non-verbal displays affects not only how other people respond to us but it reflects how we feel about ourselves and how we see ourselves.

So the last thing I’d like you to do before I end today is to give you a little experience with this. I’m going to actually ask you right now to get into an expansive posture, they’re directions right here about how you can do it. So I’m going to ask you to make sure your elbows are away from your body, you can put your hands behind your head, or put the arm across a chair and once you’re — make sure you’re comfortable that’s what it’s all about.

Once you’re in a posture, I’d like you to hold it so don’t release that yet, get into an expansive posture and hold it. And what I’m going to ask you to do is to show you on the next slide just a couple of sentences that I would like you to read aloud while you’re in this posture, okay.

So get in the posture and hold it. I’m going to count to three and we’re going to read what comes up on the next slide together. 1, 2 3. I can’t do it, I feel so helpless. You believe it? It’s like a big joke. It’s like a big joke, right? And it’s not the case that these thoughts are never in your head but it’s very hard to believe what you say when your body is telling you something different, right?

Let’s try the alternative. Get into a contracted or constricted posture. So keep your hands very close to your body, make sure your knees are together, it can help sometimes to lean forward. And if you really want to have this experience turn one foot in. Okay, hold this posture. Again, I’m going to ask you to read the lines on the next slide when I count to three. One, two, three.

I’m totally in charge. Not so much, right?

So you get that feeling right? What I’m going to talk about later there’s actually a lot of data coming out now to show that it’s not the case that our bodies only follow our psychology but we actually take cues from what our bodies are telling us and the way we hold our bodies affects actually how powerful we feel and how powerfully we behave.

So let me just leave you with the three things I hope you would get from when I talked about today.

The first thing is I want you to recognize the power of nonverbal behavior in determining your power and influence in situations for the things that you would like to accomplish.

I also wanted to touch on the importance of being able to tune your behavior in the context of the social hierarchy as a way of making relationships work and as a way of getting along with other people.

And then a third thing I’d like you to recognize is that you can’t really underestimate the importance of alignment between your body and mind as a way of supporting your desire to be successful in professional roles.

Thanks very much.



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