Different business people

Have you ever given any thought to when and why you smile at work? Have you thought about how others perceive you when you smile? How about how you perceive those who smile at you? I’m here to tell you, all of these are important questions with answers that may very well reveal mountains of information about yourself and others. And the answers may surprise you – I know that they made me reevaluate and look at myself more closely. You may not know it but I am German and Germans were not taught the value of smiling. Anyway, according to Nat King Cole,

When you’re smiling,
The whole world smiles with you
And when you’re laughing,
The sun comes shining through.

In the business world those words are not always true. In fact, when you’re smiling, the business world may be laughing at you! In a business setting a smiling person, particularly a smiling woman, may be viewed as weaker, less dominate, less serious and more subordinate. In fact, a smile can hurt and undermine a woman in the workplace. And, by extension, a man who smiles too much or too easily may run into the same prejudices and roadblocks.

That said, I’m not one to advocate not smiling or being nice and gracious. However, I think it important that we all know the possible unconscious reactions that others can have to the way we present ourselves. We know that when it comes to dressing, how our hair is fixed, how high our voices are, our height and other “feminine” characteristics, we are judged all the time. But it’s quite interesting to realize that even our smiles can place us at a disadvantage.

Research has shown that women who smile a lot at work are often perceived to be less serious and determined – on the basis of their smile alone, and having nothing at all to do with their actual commitment or other characteristics. Bottom line – in many cases, you have to be serious to be taken seriously. It has as much to do with gender norms about body language as anything else – we are, as women, programmed to smile (not every culture however but this is true for North America and most of Europe), particularly at those in authority.

On the other hand, if we are “the same” as a man in our actions and approaches, we are tagged as overly aggressive and power-hungry. One study done at Stanford showed that when two identical case studies were given to students to evaluate, the sole difference in the two versions being that a man predominated in one and a woman in the other, the protagonist business person were found to be equally competent, but the woman was unlikeable, disingenuous and self-promoting. The man was just doing his job.

Yet, a woman who falls into what one might think of as ‘typical’ feminine behaviors, such as sitting with her legs crossed in front of her, not spread wide like a man, automatically makes herself smaller in the room. One who takes up less space seems “less authoritative.” Another thing women often do is smile and look away when they say something authoritative. Or, they smile automatically when approached by someone in authority. These actions give our own strength and authority away. A perfect example is one of my executive coaching clients who is strong, successful and beautiful inside and out. When she is distracted or preoccupied she twirls her hair. Men around her get the vibe that she is flirting and that undermines her authority with them. We’ve worked through this and you can do the same if you recognize a similar idiosyncrasy in yourself.

Studies conducted at UCLA concluded that the more authority one holds, the slower that person is to smile. And smiling is incredibly out of our control; it happens in 20-30 milliseconds after a triggering incident. If someone smiles at you, you react literally before you even realize it. If you can do it, and it’s really difficult as I have tried, withholding your smile longer than this time frame can be a way of demonstrating authority or withholding approval against the other person.

“Our faces are really emoticons, we broadcast our inner feelings, our emotions,” according to the Wall Street Journal. “In addition to our emotional lives…our face involuntarily mirrors our sense of other people’s authority, our sense of social status, and in particular, office hierarchy. … Depending on how I feel about your status, how you feel about your power over me, we may or may not choose to mirror each other’s smiles.”

And this smiling back and forth takes another interesting turn. If a subordinate smiles, the one in authority is generally quick to smile back – but slower to smile at someone who is viewed as equal or dominate in the hierarchy of power and control. In short, smiling is a powerful tool, if you can tame it!

Forbes Magazine has published a list of 10 undermining traits in women. Here they are for your consideration:

• Head tilting – showing that you are listening and attentive by tilting your head is a subconscious projection of submission. To project power and authority, keep your head straight up and neutral.
• Physically condensing – men with authority are expansive in the amount of space they take up – think of the Rodin sculpture of Balzac. Sit straight, don’t cross your legs, take up space. On the other hand, take into account my experience with a man I was coaching and avoid going too far. Rather than expanding his size, this man expanded his space into the personal space of others, making them feel uncomfortable. Strike a balance.
• Acting girlish – this one speaks for itself – don’t twirl your hair, bat those lashes, etc.
• Letting your voice rise at the end of a sentence – don’t make your statements come across as questions. Stay strong and in command. Some men use their voice and words crudely as a tool of authority. Don’t make this mistake. Swearing does not make one authoritative; rather, it is off putting and in most workplaces inappropriate. You don’t want to be “one of the boys.” You just don’t want your affectations to undermine you.
• Excessive smiling – don’t do it – it’s a nonverbal cue for friendliness, not for strength and authority.
• Nodding too much – don’t be too agreeable or empathetic. Stay strong and listen quietly. I hear from many women that they don’t know whether a man has heard them because they don’t signal that they have. But, they have heard, they just don’t respond. That’s stronger than nodding.
• Waiting your turn – butt right in and interrupt if you have too. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tells women they must “learn to interrupt.” Being overly expressive – this is more of that behavior that reveals too much emotion. Appear calm, contained; determined and straight forward.
• Having a weak handshake – enough said about the important of a direct, full hand shake.
• Flirting – don’t do it – full stop! It’s not about liking you, but about respecting you.

The next time you are in a work situation, think of these little ways to grab authority and power. It won’t happen overnight, but in time, your actions will match the feeling of strength you have inside. These are great steps toward strengthening your position in the workplace with your peers, superiors and even your subordinates.