Looks Can Be Convincing: To Get Promoted, Just Appear Competent

If you're confident enough, new research suggests, people will think you're right.

In a perfect—or at least more rational world—the most qualified people would rise fastest. But new research suggests that just appearing to be competent is as important to getting ahead.

How so? Think about why brainstorming has a loudmouth problem: The person with the best ideas isn't the one who gets heard most. Rather, it's the most assertive person—unless you find a way to correct it. Since business is done by people, and people aren't always totally rational, some irrational things happen. Like deferring to the most confident person in the room and allowing a power dynamic to develop from there.

if you're confident when you join a group, you'll be more assertive when you first start talking. As a result, you'll look more able to everybody—and thus take the top spot in the freshly formed pecking order.

That is according to the work of Gavin Kilduff and Adam Galinsky. As a blogger at the Association for Psychological Science said recently, the New York University and Columbia Business School professors thought that the feelings people had upon entering group would shape their long-term status in that group.

Why? Because, they hypothesized, if you're confident when you join a group, you'll be more assertive when you first start talking. As a result, you'll look more able to everybody—and thus take top spot in the freshly formed pecking order.

How you feel today; how far you'll go tomorrow

Kilduff and Galinsky conducted a series of experiments to test their hypothesis that the psychological state you enter a group with determines the status you'll have in that group later.

In the first experiment, subjects were split into three groups. Each was asked to write a few paragraphs about themselves:

  • Group 1 had a "promotion-focused" condition: They wrote about their aspirations and ambition.
  • Group 2 had a "prevention-focused" condition: They wrote about their duties and obligations.
  • Group 3 had a "neutral" condition: They wrote about their commute to campus.

Then, having been primed with these short reflections, they assembled into groups of three and were asked to create a hypothetical startup company, ranking the importance of 13 items, such as company name, industry contacts, and the like, in 20 minutes.

After the brainstorming, subjects reported how much they respected and admired their teammates and how much influence each had over decisions, as well their own and their teams' initiative.

As was predicted, the promotion-primed people were more assertive and better regraded than the folks who reflected on their duties or commutes.

But even more startling, Kilduff and Galinsky continued research that showed how those initial interactions set up long-term dynamics. As the Association for Psychological Science blogger wrote:

In the follow-up studies, (the authors) found that feeling powerful or happy when you entered a group not only led to immediate increases in status, but that this effect endured over subsequent group meetings, long after the writing task would have receded. Why? The person entering into the group, having just been primed with power, acted more assertively in the first few minutes, according to video tape coding. This set up patterns of communication that persist in the future. That early assertiveness becomes self-reinforcing within the group.

What's the lesson here? First, that, yes, people aren't totally rational. (Tip: If you're interviewing for a job, make it a breakfast meeting.) Second, our emotions affect our behaviors and interactions with others. Third, introspection primes our emotions.

So if you have something difficult coming up—such as joining a new team—you can get yourself ready with the right kind of reflection.

Hat tip: Minds for Business

[Image: Flickr user Martin Fisch]

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