In my last article ( “How one simple corporate acting experiment could give you more impact with your team and clients”) I introduced a simple body language exercise that gave access to a great actor’s tool called “status”, compliments of teaching and improv guru, Keith Johnson. It gives you a very simple key to being able to adjust your body to feel differently. EG: You’re feeling nervous about a meeting or presentation, change a few things in your body and you feel more confident. The old “fake it until you make it” method.
In this article, I’d like to delve a bit deeper into to that dynamic.
Releasing the power of looking less powerful in the workplace
I’ve taught status to actors and non-actors for many years and there is one constant, this is how it looks:
After introducing status as a body-language exercise I make a list on a whiteboard with two columns: High Status and Low status. I then ask my students to call out attributes you would expect to see from someone exhibiting one of these two Behaviours. Usually the two lists look something like this:
High Status and Low Status
- Confident Passive
- Assertive Meek
- Knowledgeable Weak
- Decisive Indecisive
- Charismatic Fumbling
Universally people naturally attribute positive words to high status and negative words to low status. This is understandable, but it is also very, very wrong. High Status aint necessarily better than Low.
Status is an instinctive hardwired form of body language that originates from our caveman days. It is fundamentally a defense mechanism. When you play high status, you are sending out the message, “don’t mess with me because I bite”. When you play low status, you are sending out the message, “don’t mess with me because I’m really not worth the effort” … If asked what is the most effective defense I’d say low almost every time.
Take for instance, verbal self-abuse, EG: “God I’m an idiot”. When someone is doing this, it is almost impossible to insult them yourself, or stay angry at them as they are kind of doing the job for you. The risk of the high status defense is actually meeting someone who does bite and of the situation escalating. But I digress. Back to body language and my two lists.
“According to recent research, 86 percent of employees believe that if they like their boss they are more productive.”– Peter Economy
The next step is to ask my students to think of positive attributes they can give to low status and negative they can give to high. There is usually a bit of silence, a few suggestions then after a short while it is hard for me to keep up at the white board. The two new lists usually look a bit like this:
High Status and Low Status (Revised)
- Dominant Approachable
- Arrogant Humble
- Aggressive Encouraging
- Inflexible Likable
- Dismissive Helpful
There are two things to take away here: First, playing simply high or low status doesn’t necessarily result in better communications for you. You might want to come across as assertive but be coming across as aggressive for instance.
Secondly, I’d encourage you to make your own two lists of positive attributes for high and low status (you’re welcome to use mine as a starting point) then think about two or three you’d like to use in your next presentation of meeting. Take into consideration your audience when doing this. If, for instance, I was presenting to room full of doctors about a new health IT application (which I have done), I would be inclined to go for a higher status presentation (Authoritative, Knowledgeable, Confident).
If I was presenting to a room full of Nurses however I’d probably have a few more on the lower end of the spectrum (Approachable, Helpful, Knowledgeable). You’ll notice that I still had one high status attribute in amongst two low, which leads to the next part (in a different article I guess) about status swinging. Every audience requires different thinking and preparation for your body language and if you utilize this, something we all innately do already, you’ll become a much better communicator.
We are all living during a time when people want and expect their leaders to be more human, less perfect and at times a bit vulnerable – regardless of hierarchy or rank– Glenn Llopis
About the Authors
Lisa Peers is the Founder and CEO of Peers and Players. Matt Stewart is a professional actor and project manager at Peers and Players. If you’d like to know more about how corporate actors can enhance your workplace training check out our Presentation Skills training.