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 nonthreatening eye contact is the norm in most societies, though the definitions of "engaged" and "nonthreatening" 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:
- Devious Political Tactics: A Field Manual
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Since most of us operate in a fairly straightforward manner, the devious among us gain unfair advantage.
Here are some of their techniques, and some suggestions for effective responses.
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- Rope-A-Dope in Organizational Politics
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- The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: I
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- Intentionally Misreporting Status: II
- When we report the status of the work we do, we sometimes confront the temptation to embellish the good
news or soften the bad news. Reporting the real situation can be so difficult, in part, because of fear,
ambition, and self-delusion.
See also Workplace Politics and Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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