Prime Time

Bob Goldman
Posted: Nov 28, 2013 12:01 AM
Prime Time

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).

The results of this simple exercise were dramatic. In one experiment, "60 percent of those primed with an approach orientation were described by at least one teammate as the 'leader of the group' -- nearly double the rate expected by chance." In another test, "people primed with power spoke earlier and more assertively than their colleagues during the first 10 minutes of discussion."

Apparently, even those primed for happiness scored well for leadership -- a finding I have to question. My prediction is that people who had reminded themselves of the nature of happiness were statistically much more likely to leave a meeting early and never return.

Interestingly, the leadership effect lasted well past the first meeting, with the same aura of power and dominance still attaching itself to the pre-primed subjects 48 hours later. What happened after that is open for discussion. My guess is that when the newly perceived faux leaders were actually given leadership responsibilities, their heads exploded.

The practical consequences of this research are clear. Before you enter any meeting, take a few minutes out to prime your left frontal cortex with the appropriate memories to trigger a promotion focus, happiness focus or power focus.

This won't be easy since you have no goals, are never happy and easily subjugated by everyone from your boss to your spouse and cat. But maybe that's for the best. You may never experience the awesome responsibility of leadership, but you'll also never have to think or make decisions.

As an aimless, miserable, powerless cipher, your boss will tell you what to do so you can continue to spend your days as a carefree drone, playing video games and shopping online until you can go home and have your cat tell you what to do.