Could you prime yourself so that other people would recognize in you a competent and reliable leader? How much "mental imaging" affects long term success? Harvard Business Review has the answer! There are three psychological states that can increase the optimism, confidence, and proactive behavior that people associate with leaders: promotion focus (defined as a focus on goals and positive outcomes), happiness, and a feeling of power. And all it takes to help you enter one of these states is a simple five-minute exercise.
You’ve been assigned to a new cross-divisional task force, and the first meeting is today. Managers from across the company are gathered in a conference room at headquarters; colleagues from international offices are participating via conference call and Skype. The CEO, there just to oversee the group’s kickoff, opens with a pep talk. “So we’re asking all of you to help chart a new path,” he says. “We expect some exciting ideas to emerge from this group.” You look at the unfamiliar faces around you and imagine the other people listening in from afar. You’re a mix of men and women, with varied ages and titles, representing different divisions and functional backgrounds, living in different countries. Who among you will become the stars of this team?
Social scientists have spent decades studying how individuals achieve status within organizational groups—that is, how they gain respect, prominence, and influence in the eyes of others. We know, for example, that demographics matter: People of the historically dominant race and gender and a respected age (white men over 40 in the western corporate world) are typically afforded higher status than everyone else. Appearance also plays a role (the tall and the good-looking are favored over those less genetically blessed), as do personality (confident extroverts win out) and formal rank (the boss is the boss).
Thankfully, we also use more legitimate measures to size up new teammates. These include expertise, competence, and commitment—all good indicators of whether a person will command others’ respect. But although educational and professional credentials may testify to these assets, they can be difficult to assess immediately. So at first, as a shortcut, we often revert to using the aforementioned easily observable characteristics to determine who is worthy of leading the group.
Initial perceptions, of course, are subject to change as people work together and prove their merit. Still, the old adage “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” is at least partially true. Numerous studies show that social hierarchies develop quickly and are generally stable: People who achieve high status early tend to retain it.
All these findings suggest—rather dishearteningly—that the influence you’ll have on a group is largely predetermined by factors beyond your control. In this article, we present evidence that challenges that notion. Through a series of experiments, we have shown that anyone can achieve higher status on a team, both at the outset and over time, by temporarily shifting his or her mind-set before a first meeting. Put simply, the attitude with which you enter a new group—something completely within your control—can help boost your chances of leading it.
We believe these findings have important implications for managers in today’s increasingly flat and matrixed organizations, where temporary, diverse teams are becoming the norm. Traditional predictors of status simply aren’t as important as they used to be, and workers are forming and joining different groups all the time. First impressions matter more than ever, and you can improve the ones you make with a simple five-minute exercise.
A Push Toward Proactivity
Because you can’t change your demographic characteristics, personality, appearance, rank, functional background, or expertise to get ready for a big meeting, our focus is on mind-set and behavior. Research tells us there are certain “competence cues,” such as speaking up, taking the initiative, and expressing confidence, that suggest leadership potential. These proactive behaviors can be good indications that a person has useful expertise and experience, or they might simply reflect deep-seated personality traits such as extroversion and dominance. However, there’s increasing evidence that people can propel themselves into proactivity by temporarily shifting their psychological frame of mind.
We start with the two motivation systems that underlie much of our behavior. One, the avoidance or inhibition system, pushes us to steer clear of threats and adverse outcomes. The other, the approach system, concentrates our attention on achieving positive outcomes and rewards, and it’s this latter system that can spark the behaviors that lead to higher status.
In our research, we studied the effects of triggering three approach-based psychological states: promotion focus (defined as a focus on aspirations and goals), happiness, and a feeling of power. Previous work by others has shown that all three activate the same left frontal regions of the brain, reduce the stress hormone cortisol, and increase optimism and confidence. And these neurological, hormonal, and psychological effects lead to behavioral changes: For example, people primed to feel powerful are more likely to take action such as turning off an annoying fan, while those primed to focus on promotion and happiness offer more ideas in brainstorming and guessing tasks. In our studies, we wanted to know whether these mind-sets would make people more proactive—and thus boost their status—in live, face-to-face group interactions.
Our priming method involved a simple exercise that you can do with a pen and paper or your smartphone right now or before your next team project kickoff. To shift people toward a promotion focus, we asked them to write a few paragraphs describing their ambitions and what they hoped to achieve in life. To make them feel more powerful, we had them recall and describe an incident in which they had power over another person. And to stimulate happiness, we had them write about a time when they felt excited and joyful. Other study participants were primed to be in the opposite avoidance-oriented psychological state (describing their duties and obligations rather than their aspirations, a time when someone had power over them, or a sad experience). A third set of participants weren’t primed either way; they wrote about their commutes or recent grocery store trips.
We then put people into same-sex groups of three—one person primed with an approach orientation, one primed with the opposite avoidance orientation, and one in a neutral state. Their task was to work together to make a group decision, such as ranking items necessary to survive in the Arctic or determining the best way to launch a company. Afterward, teammates rated one another on status (To what extent do you respect and admire this person? Did she lead the group? To what extent did he influence task decisions?) and proactivity (How assertively did he act? How much initiative did she take in the discussion?).
The effects were clear. People made to feel promotion-focused, powerful, or happy before the group task behaved more proactively and achieved significantly higher status than those in other states. For example, in one experiment, 60% of those primed with an approach orientation were described by at least one teammate as the “leader of the group”—nearly double the rate expected by chance. In another experiment, we videotaped the group discussions, and independent observers confirmed that people primed with power spoke earlier and more assertively than their teammates during the first 10 minutes of discussion. We also found that these temporary psychological states mattered as much as or more than stable, traditionally status-enhancing personality traits such as extroversion and dominance.
Our conclusion: It’s pretty easy to push yourself into the kind of proactivity that marks you as a person worthy of respect—someone others want to follow.
An Enduring Effect
How far does that first impression take you, though? We know from previous research that the behavioral changes stemming from a primed mind are fleeting: Duration estimates range from a few minutes to an hour. But our experiments offered evidence that the effects can last longer in the context of a newly formed group. This is because team hierarchies not only arise quickly but also produce reinforcing patterns that lock them in. Workers who are initially perceived as valuable and afforded high status on a team continue to be seen that way, even when their contributions are equal to those of others. And the way they are treated—for example, being given more valuable information or more speaking opportunities—actually leads them to perform at a higher level and protects their elevated position. It’s much like the Pygmalion effect in the classroom: Students initially favored by their teachers do better a year later on standardized tests.
We confirmed our finding by having participants in two of our studies return 48 hours after their original group interaction and rejoin the same teams to complete two more tasks. They spent 20 minutes together generating an idea for an environmental organization and five minutes estimating statistics (for example, the percentage of Americans who use dental floss daily). No one wrote any essays or described any experiences this time; they simply got to work. Once the job was done, participants completed the same proactivity and status rankings as before, and the results were again clear. The people who had been made to feel powerful or happy two days earlier continued to wield more influence over their teammates, even though those mind-sets were no longer being primed and the tasks had changed.
In one of these experiments, we also added a resource allocation exercise to see if the people perceived to be leaders would reap tangible gains from their status. They did: When subjects were asked to spread prize-giveaway lottery points among themselves and their teammates on the basis of everyone’s respective contribution to the group, they gave more to those who had been previously primed for happiness, even though that meant keeping fewer points for themselves.
Our conclusion: The temporary mind-set that you bring to an initial group meeting can have a lasting impact on your status and influence with your teammates.
Putting It to Work
So how can you turn this research to your advantage? Before you embark on your next group project or have your first interaction with colleagues you don’t know well, simply do the priming tasks we’ve described. We’ve found consistent results across all approach orientations—regardless of whether people thought about their aspirations and ambitions, their experiences with power, or times they were happy. So pick the mind-set that feels most authentic for you.
We can’t promise miraculous results. For one thing, we know that most group projects last far longer than two days, and although we believe that status is self-reinforcing, we haven’t tested whether the effects we observed would diminish—or grow—over time. We also realize that priming for proactivity may be less likely to work in cultures where leaders aren’t expected to exhibit such behavior. And because our experiments have been mostly lab-based, we can’t yet prove that people in real-world organizations can use these techniques to advance themselves. However, these studies—and others (see the sidebar “Other WaysPriming Can Foster Success”)—present a strong argument for the power of priming when it comes to setting yourself up for influence, leadership, and impact at work.
Other Ways Priming Can Foster Success
The phenomenon reminds us of what chaos theorists call the “butterfly effect”: the idea that a small change in conditions in the natural world, even the mere flap of a butterfly’s wings, can have profound consequences, such as setting off a hurricane weeks later and thousands of miles away. Fiction writers and filmmakers have fantasized about how the butterfly effect can play out in human interaction, and they might be on to something. We now know that a small change in the thoughts and feelings you bring to your first encounter with a group—activated by something as quick and easy as a writing task—can have a significant impact on your status in it. Conventional wisdom says that success comes from having the right attributes, or from being in the right place at the right time. Our research suggests that it is also a matter of being in the right frame of mind at the right time.
→ Adam D. Galinsky and Gavin J. Kilduff, via HBR