The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many who possess real organizational power have a characteristic way of projecting their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect before they attain significant organizational power. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders.

Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. Often, their manner is so identifiable that we could pick them out of a crowd even if we didn't know who they were. It isn't how they dress, or the locations or d├ęcor of their offices. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect.

The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Power

A view of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah, at dusk.

Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Their power affect is incongruent with their actual organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, incongruent power affect can enhance their organizational power, which increases the probability of power pretenders actually attaining power. The incongruent power affect thus confers on power pretenders more deference than is their due, which helps power pretenders attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. It is therefore important to have a capacity for recognizing the power affect, and especially the incongruent power affect.

This program examines ten principles of projecting a powerful personal presence. We begin with four principles of responsibility that focus our attention on the work we actually do. We then examine some elements of demeanor, and show how attending to the four principles of responsibility finds expression in facial expressions, voice tone, meeting and greeting others, and posture. Finally we examine how the power affect influences our approaches to risk taking and recovery from errors.

Program structure and content

In this program we explore how we as humans express our personal power. We examine a variety of situations at work, or associated with work, that present opportunities for expression. This program is available as a keynote, workshop, seminar, or breakout.

This insight-filled program deals with issues such as:

  • What makes a smile sincere?
  • How can a handshake project my personal presence?
  • How can I advocate initiatives while accepting reasonable personal risk?
  • How can I recover from setbacks and move forward with confidence?
  • How can I use my voice to express myself powerfully?
  • What patterns of vocalization undermine my expression of personal power?
  • What gestures are powerful, and what gestures are associated with weakness and timidity?

This program can be very interactive, depending on the interests of the participants. It's designed as a framework with content in each of the topic areas, but it's meant to stimulate questions from the audience of the form, "What do you recommend when X happens?" I rarely answer these questions directly. Instead, I work with the questioner to construct a mini-exercise that exposes choices and perspectives the questioner might never have recognized before. And typically, these exercises provide value to substantial fractions of the audience, both directly, and as a result of additional questions they generate.

Learning objectives

Content breadth and depth depend on the duration of the program, but typical topics are below.

  • How to stand, sit, and walk so as to express power and confidence
  • The importance of leaning in or leaning back to express connection
  • The difference between a Duchenne smile and a non-Duchenne smile
  • The use of vocal registers to express personal power
  • Indicators that you're dealing with a power pretender
  • A framework for maintaining your own self respect, and for respecting others
  • How to determine what level of risk is acceptable when advocating a position

Learning model

We usually think of work skills as rather technical — free of emotional content. We hold this belief even though we know that our most difficult situations can be highly charged. Despite our most sincere beliefs, taking an organization to the next level of performance does require learning to apply knowledge management skills even in situations of high emotional content. That's why this program uses a learning model that differs from the one often used for technical content.

Our learning model is partly experiential, which makes the material accessible even during moments of stress. Using a mix of presentation, simulation, group discussion, and metaphorical team problems, we make available to participants the resources they need to make new, more constructive choices even in tense situations.

Target audience

Leaders, managers, and team members.

Program duration

Available formats range from 50 minutes to one full day.

Related articles

Barack Obama, 44th President of the United StatesPower Affect
Expressing one's organizational power to others is essential to maintaining it. Expressing power one does not yet have is just as useful in attaining it.

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