How to Be Perceived as a Leader

How can you get people to view you as a leader? At Booth Women Connect Conference 2018, Chris Collins, associate dean of leadership development, used three psychological lenses to explain how people tend to define leadership, and how the appraisals of others affect being perceived as a leader.

Leaders are created, legitimized, and empowered to lead, in part, through the perceptions of their followers. So how can you work to be perceived as a leader? What is in your control? Collins shared some insights and learnings with the audience.

People Have to Like You

Collins used one psychological lenses to explain that people tend to appraise their coworkers with respect to two pairs of qualities: cold/warm and incompetent/competent. If you were to create a two-by-two matrix of the potential combinations of these qualities, you might end up with four combinations: the competent jerk, the lovable star, the incompetent jerk, and the lovable fool.

Obviously, everyone wants to work with the lovable star (who is both warm and competent), and no one wants to deal with the unlikable jerk (both cold and incompetent). But between the competent jerk and the lovable fool, whom do people choose to work with? They often predict that they would choose the competent jerk, but in action, they often tend to do something else.

“More often than you would suppose, we opt to work with the lovable fool,” said Collins. Meaning, we would rather choose to work with someone kind and well-meaning, even if he or she bungles a few details. It may well be a matter of instinct, Collins says. As a thought experiment, he asked the audience to imagine themselves as a prototypical early human by a crackling fire, who suddenly spots something moving toward them through the dark woods. “What is your first thought?”

Clue: it’s not how competent it is. “Your first thought is: What is its intent?” Collins said. “Is it warm or hostile toward me? And only then do we ask, is it competent enough to carry out that intention?”

The Key: Adaptability

Unfortunately, it’s more difficult for women to be perceived as both warm and competent due to damaging gender stereotypes. Women can be labeled as nurturing if they’re overly warm, but are seen as aggressive if they’re highly competent. So how can women balance the two? Collins says one strategy for finding the balance is self-monitoring. That is, paying close attention to the events around you, reading situations, and adjusting your approach accordingly, Collins said.

“In one study, women who were assertive and who were adept at self-monitoring outearned and were outpromoted compared to everyone else in the sample, men and women,” Collins said, citing a study called “Reducing the backlash effect; Self-monitoring and women’s promotions,” by Olivia A. O’Neill and Charles A. O’Reilly III.

By reading situational cues (through asking open-ended questions, being present, listening carefully), and by adjusting their approach based on the situation (for example, learning to be flexible and responding to past feedback) women can better walk the difficult tightrope between warmth and competence by helping them to adjust and adapt to different situations with different audiences.

“All of us are already doing this,” Collins said, “but all of us could do it more.”

Booth Women Connect Conference is organized by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The 2018 event brought together more than 1,100 professionals for an extraordinary day of bold ideas, spirited discussion, practical insights, and impactful networking. Join us for the next annual conference on November 1, 2019.

—By Leah Rachel von Essen

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