How to exert influence when you don’t have physical status

Many women in the workplace have experienced being judged or ignored because of their physical appearance.

Unless a woman is stand-out attractive, the fact she may be less physically imposing or more softspoken than the men around her can lead to the perception that she is less interesting or less authoritative than others who are larger or louder.

The fact this happens does not mean that everyone in that workplace intends to be harshly judgmental, or that they intentionally believe women’s contributions to be less valuable. Nonetheless, as a social species, we continually evaluate other human beings at both a conscious and subconscious level. And sadly, some of those subconscious programmes do attribute greater status to individuals who are taller, or who have louder, deeper voices.

Behavioural science shows that when we interact in a professional group such as a team, department, or committee, that evaluation results in a ranking of team members according to their perceived status. The status we attribute to others in turn determines the extent to which we are influenced by them.

If you want to exert influence in situations where you don’t have formal authority or physical status, the first step is to understand how human brains conduct status rankings. Then you can use that knowledge to increase your status relative to other members of the group.

Physical characteristics that determine status

Science shows that the physical characteristics that confer status (termed ‘diffuse’ characteristics by some scientists and ‘face-ism’ by others) comprise being male rather than female, being taller rather than below-average height, being more attractive, rather than below average in attractiveness and being Caucasian rather than anything else.

Age can also affect status. When complete strangers aged 18 to 65 on jury service need to determine a leader for the group discussion, they are four times more likely to appoint someone aged over 45 than someone aged 18 to 44 years old.

It is important to remember that members of the group who are failing to listen to you are not necessarily behaving this way because they are nasty bullies who are out to get you. Not only is it possible that this entire process has occurred unconsciously, it is also supported by group consensus. A taller or older man is not necessarily the one putting himself in charge: everyone is putting him in charge.

Five approaches to combat face-ism

If you find yourself in one of these potentially ‘low status’ categories – such as being a below average height female, it is certainly possible for you to create status for yourself irrespective of your physical characteristics. So how do you do this? Here are five tips.

  • Recognise negative stereotypes in order to diminish them. The status ranking effects of our physical features are largely based on cultural stereotypes – and sadly they affect our unconscious judgements, even when we don’t consciously believe in those stereotypes. As unpalatable as this topic may be, consider whether or not you might be subject to negative stereotypes about your ability in a given subject, topic or work area. Prepare in advance to counteract those stereotypes. How could you label yourself in a manner that classifies you as a strong performer instead?
  • Prepare authoritative, data-based statements. So long as the argument involves one opinion against another, the person with the higher status will win by group consensus. However, if the lower-ranked person has the relevant statistics and data to support their point, they will increase the authority of their argument. Preparing your contributions in advance can also enable you to practice enunciating them clearly and slightly more loudly than usual.
  • Demonstrate contextual status factors. You may not walk into a meeting with a physical appearance that communicates high status, but you can increase your perceived status if you can demonstrate contextual status factors such as overall level of education, prior experience in a specific job role or industry or quantified expertise in the topic of discussion. Relevant skill or ability can carry implications of competence that will elevate a person’s status, particularly if the implied skill set is relevant to the discussion or decision the group is facing. Past achievement in the topic or problem currently being addressed by the group can also increase your status.
  • Speak up with confidence. in a series of studies US researchers found that those who behaved in a confident manner were highly likely to be chosen as a leader when put into leaderless groups. Sadly, but truthfully, humans tend to confuse confidence with capability. If you are less inclined to make your voice heard, it is important to recognize that your personality type in no way renders your ideas less worthwhile. However, to generate status and influence for yourself in a professional group, planning to participate early and confidently will help enormously.
  • Dress for status. Rather than thinking of dressing to look stylish or to look formal, instead think of dressing in line with the status and authority you want to establish. This doesn’t mean that you need to wear lots of gold jewellery or that you should come into the meeting wearing a lab coat. It means you need to reflect on the strengths you wish to portray and ask, ‘how would that person dress?’ While research on status characteristics tells us that attractive people often achieve higher status in a group, be careful as tighter or more revealing clothing can lead both men and women to rate female candidates as less competent.

In today’s professional environment we need to leverage a diverse global workforce and harvest the valuable ideas of capable people who come in vastly different shapes and sizes. Hence, we need to work at reducing and removing stereotypes.

The more opportunity people have to experience leaders and successful role models who represent a wide and dissimilar range of characteristics, the less that physical factors will wield power in workplace discussions and decisions.

Further, if you are in a position of authority or leadership in a company, having the humility and self-awareness to work on changing these patterns can result in a wider variety of valuable and potentially innovative ideas for your team or your company.

Amanda Nimon PetersAbout the author

Dr. Amanda Nimon-Peters is Professor of Leadership at Hult International Business School. Her book Working with Influence: Nine Principles of Persuasion to Accelerate Your Career is available on Amazon and would make an excellent Christmas present for yourself or other working professionals.