By Dale S. Rose, Ph.D.
I’m still amazed how often people ask me “are leaders born or made?” For the record, they are made. Really. Still, the kernel of truth in the question comes down to our recognition that some personal attributes do make people stand out as leaders. Research has shown taller people (of all genders) are more likely to be chosen as leaders, are more likely to be promoted, and have greater income. Does this mean leaders need to be tall to be effective, or that we have a positive bias toward tall people which bleeds into our judgements about leaders? As the world of work has shifted to include more digital interactions and fewer in person interactions, those findings may need to be re-validated. Being tall, along with a host of other personal characteristics like attractiveness, extroversion, or interpersonal sensitivity, might not be as important as they once were.
In short: The rules of leader influence have changed, probably forever.
Leaders who have historically been hyper effective at cajoling a room of big egos into a singular path are struggling like they never have before. This trend is not an aberration, but rather reflects a sea change in how leaders interact with those they wish to influence. Now leaders need to find ways to instill confidence in a vision of the future, pitch a particular strategy or motivate a colleague in the two-dimensional universe of video conferencing. Which turns out to be quite difficult. The shift has caught many leaders by surprise, and they are asking for help with influencing skills more than ever before.
I experienced this trend firsthand in a recent coaching engagement with “Jamahl” (not his real name), a Vice President level leader at a F50 company with 25 years of tenure at his company. I was asked to help Jamahl navigate a new role with a new direct manager who explicitly requested me to help Jamahl learn to be bolder and to develop “sharper elbows”: She wanted him to improve his influence abilities.
After two months in his new role, his manager had become concerned Jamahl may be ineffective at influencing those who he needed to get on his side to achieve his goals. Jamahl was expected to deliver $50 million of recurring savings to the bottom line through his teams’ efforts during the year, but his work required his peers to agree and align with his approach. We looked at his 360 Feedback results which confirmed his peers were not on board (yet). We looked at his personality profile, which confirmed he was an extravert with great people skills. After working through many scenarios where Jamahl had tried and failed to earn his peers’ confidence, I asked him if he’d ever had any difficulties in the past. He’d had none. In fact, he had always found it quite easy to get people on his side. When I asked what he thought was the difference, he said “well, you don’t know it, but I’m 6’4” tall – which makes me a genetic anomaly in the Southeast Asian country where I grew up in. Ever since grammar school, I’ve always found it easy to leverage my height and outgoing personality to lead the way. I guess I just look the part. Plus, I can get along with just about anyone.”
I was shocked. We had never met in person. I had been coaching Jamahl for three months via video, and I had no idea he was so tall. He understood, and had learned to leverage, his physical presence and his personality as valuable tools of influence. But on video calls, both of those tools (particularly his height) were no longer in the toolbox.
Put simply, the use of video conferencing has radically changed how leaders need to approach influence. The rules have changed. The attributes many leaders have learned over the years to be successful may no longer be as valuable. In a video conference, the loudest person in the room may get the same opportunity to speak as the quietest person. Moderators are more likely to see each person equally. Chat functions make private conversations easier. Digital hand raises are an easy way to get attention. Extraverts beware: Video is killing your charm.
And so, leaders need to adapt. The leaders who make this shift the fastest will benefit most.
In 2013, researchers identified 10 characteristics that most contribute to a leader’s likelihood of being able to influence others. In order of importance, from greatest influence to least influence, the attributes that contribute to a leader’s influence ability include:
1) Values-in-action (courage, integrity, lack of ego),
2) Interpersonal behavior patterns, (genuineness; valuing others),
3) Demeanor (confidence, composed under pressure; authoritative),
4) Communication skills, (clear, compelling messages; the ability to make oneself heard)
5) Interpersonal skills (engaging others easily; work a room),
6) Intellect and expertise,
7) Status and reputation, (networks; prior roles; claimed achievements)
8) Outcome delivery ability
9) Physical characteristics, (grooming; attractiveness; stature)
10) Power use (fear as a motivator).
The top three together accounted for more than 50% of a leader’s influencing ability.
While these elements likely continue to drive influencing ability, with hybrid (remote and in person) work here to stay, leaders must confront this list differently. Video interactions will strain even the most adept leader’s ability to appear courageous, confident, and genuine if they continue to approach it the same way they did in an all-in-person world. Valuing others and “working a room” will remain important skills but require new techniques in a hybrid work environment.
The most effective leaders in the future will be those who adapt and learn new skills that are more effective in video interactions. Using the “drop in” feature of a video chat is one way to do this – when on a call with one colleague and you need a third party to join, try simply adding them to the call in the moment rather than scheduling a meeting – it is like dropping by someone’s workspace to get their opinion but with less walking. Leverage direct chat with individuals during video calls as much as possible. Rather than checking your mail during a down time of a meeting, direct chat someone on the call to whom you need to connect, even if it isn’t directly relevant to the topic on the agenda. Use the “reactions” features regularly – it shows you are engaged, and it gets people to look your way, even if just for a moment. Use the group chat function to ask relevant questions – these questions can be responded to when the speaker has time, rather than the way it works during in person meetings where questions need to arrive during a gap in speech.
Video conference tips will help, but the most important factor to add into a leader’s influence repertoire is to get honest feedback from colleagues more regularly. Leaders need to know how colleagues perceive their leadership abilities. The one thing that is nearly impossible to get in a video interaction is the most important: The answer to the question “how is my message landing?” Do my colleagues have confidence in my approach, my point of view, my leadership? Will they follow me?” Leaders need honest feedback, and they simply cannot get it in a video universe. At least annually, leaders need a full scale 360 Feedback assessment where responses are anonymous, and the questions are comprehensive. Frequent “anytime feedback” apps can provide some support, but the level of honesty in feedback provided on these tools has proven to be dubious at best. For more regular informal feedback between full assessments, leaders need to take the time to meet (even in video) one on one with people to directly assess how well connected they are and where they stand. This may seem like too much effort – but not if you factor in the effort to get honest feedback as replacing the commute time that would otherwise be spent to fly/drive/train to meet up.
I should also highlight a group of highly competent but often frustrated leaders reading this who are thrilled by the news. These are the introverts who have exceptional talent but have been overlooked far too often when the question of “who should lead” comes up because they didn’t have the energy to “work a room” or make themselves heard above the crowd. For these quiet leaders, the playing field has leveled somewhat. And to them, I say, master the video universe and show the world what you can do! It is your time.
And, if you happen to be among the 0.3% of the population that is taller than 6 feet, 3 inches, don’t stay on video exclusively– try to get an in person meeting at least once with the people you most need to influence. They’ll remember you later!
Dale S. Rose, Ph.D., is the President and Co-founder of 3D Group. He is an expert in leadership development and assessment-based human resources solutions. He recently co-edited The Handbook of Strategic 360 Feedback and authored the 2019 study, Current Practices in 360 Feedback, 6th Edition.