In psychology, to display affect is to express one's inner feelings or emotion. But just as humans can lie with words, they can also intentionally display false affect. When they do, the affect display is incongruent. Masters of incongruent affect can gain advantages in the workplace by adopting an affect consistent with organizational power beyond their current status. These power pretenders can gain advantages because people who are relatively unfamiliar with the power affect are less able to distinguish the incongruent power affect from the congruent. In this state of confusion, people confer on power pretenders more deference than is their due, and thus mastery of the incongruent power affect begets power.
To avoid confusing the incongruent power affect with the real thing, begin by learning to recognize how the powerful express their power.
- Generally, the powerful move slowly. They carry little with them — no cases, few devices, sometimes not even a pad. They stand or sit erect but relaxed. They behave like professional poker players when the stakes are high, exhibiting extraordinary personal control.
- All this can change in an instant. When it changes, it changes in a controlled manner, to some new state of control.
- Facial expressions
- On cursory examination, the powerful seem to be expressionless, but they often match the iconic expressions of power that we see in film and in many politicians, especially post-election. Think of political leaders addressing their nations on television, or of actors who play those roles. They're calm and alert, focused and engaged, but not inordinately so.
- To detect the facial expressions of power, begin by recognizing your own responses to them. When you next notice that in yourself, carefully observe the person who elicited that response.
- Gaze and glares
- Acknowledgment of others through engaged but non-threatening eye contact is the norm in most societies, though the definitions of "engaged" and "non-threatening" do vary somewhat. The effects and likely intent of an eye engagement depend on the culturally neutral forms available. It's likely that they're similar to your own, because most of us spend our lives in our cultures of origin, or cultures closely related.
- Eye contact Generally, the powerful move slowly.
They carry little with them — no cases,
no devices, sometimes not even a pad.outside the neutral band — either too little or too much — can be intimidating. Someone who refuses to look at you while engaging others with pleasant directness could be trying to isolate you. Someone who engages in overly aggressive, overly direct or even threatening glares might be doing the same.
Expressing power is usually a choice. Why would anyone do that? Almost certainly, it will not lead to an outcome best for all concerned. Outcomes biased in favor of the powerful are less likely to advance the group than are outcomes arrived at collaboratively. Almost certainly, expressions of power are intended to benefit those doing the expressing. When next you notice an expression of power, consider whether the power is real, or merely an expression. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
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- When projects falter, we expect demands for status and explanations. What's puzzling is how often this
happens to projects that aren't in trouble. Here's Part II of a catalog of strategies for managing
- Dismissive Gestures: I
- Humans are nothing if not inventive. In the modern organization, where verbal insults are deprecated,
we've developed hundreds of ways to insult each other silently (or nearly so). Here's part one of a
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- Responding to Threats: I
- Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure
mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
- Inappropriate Levels of Regard
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- We usually think of scope creep as having been induced by managerial decisions. And most often, it probably
is. But most project team members — and others as well — can contribute to the problem.
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- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.