Bob Goldman

Those of us who are tall, good-looking, over 40, white and male rarely have trouble being perceived as leaders. In our society, "people of the historically dominant race and gender, and a respected age, are typically afforded higher status than everyone else," say two business school professors, Adam D. Galinsky and Gavin J. Kilduff, in a recent article on group behavior in the Harvard Business Review.

You don't have to go to Harvard University to know this is true. Glance at the leaders of your company, or your nation, and you'll observe this historic dominance, despite their demonstrating historic dimwittedness so often.

But are demographics destiny? Maybe not.

Thanks to the work of these learned profs, it may be possible to become a leader, even if you're short, ugly, under 40, female, and puce -- or whatever color your complexion takes on every morning when you consider going to work. This particular secret to success is called "priming." As the professors put it: "Anyone can achieve higher status on a team, both at the onset 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 boost your chances of leading it."

Of course, for this new technique to work, you have to be operating under the right motivation system. Your usual posture, aka "the avoidance or inhibition system," is one that "pushes us to steer clear of threats and adverse outcomes." In other words, no matter what psychological gymnastics you put yourself through, you are unlikely to be perceived as a leader when you spend most of your workday hiding in the coat closet.

To succeed in groups, or life, you have to operate on the "approach system," which "concentrates our attention on achieving positive outcomes and rewards."

It is only in this system that you can trigger three approach-based psychological states: a focus on promotion, happiness or a feeling of power. (If you've never experienced any of these states, which science has shown to "activate the same left frontal regions of the brain," try jump-starting the system by picking up your keyboard and repeatedly whacking yourself in the left frontal region of your skull. Feel more positive? You will when you stop the whacking.)

Professors, in order to stimulate the appropriate frames of mind, used a technique in which subjects sat down before a meeting and wrote out a few paragraphs detailing their goals and ambitions (promotion focus), a time they felt excited and joyous (happiness focus) or a time they could bend others to their will (power focus).

Bob Goldman

Bob Goldman is a business humor writer.

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