This is the thing. Learning can be hard. Why? Because most of the time, it means we are either admitting we don't know something or that we are held views that were previously wrong. This is tough considering we live in an age where admitting you were wrong (either to others or yourself) can be a risky and vulnerable thing. Yet, despite this, true leadership calls for the "growing pains" of learning. Are you actively feeling this pain?
What do you do when you know you have something of worth to share, but have a hard time helping others see the value? Is it them? Is it you? Is it the way you are explaining it? Why don't they get it? Why is it that others can speak and everyone would hang on every word while others are so easily dismissed? Did you have something stuck in your teeth? What is it?
We all have some challenges with influence in some form or fashion. Sometimes it is on an innocent debate like quantifying the top 10 Denzel Washington movies of all time.
Other times, it is something more serious (like your influencing the hiring manager that they should hire you). Your ability to influence others depends on many factors. I just wanted to take a quick look and make some observations regarding building and finding influence in regards to image and the cultural associations and biases connected to it.
Though I haven't seen hard evidence for this I think it is safe to say some people just have IT. That IT factor. They have the look and the sound. They just have this personality that warrants a lot of social credibility and influence. Let's not front and pretend this doesn't play a significant role in even our social circles. There are some things you will tolerate with some friends and other things you wouldn't. You meet someone for the first time and your gut immediately gives you this "sense" or impression of that person. What is the basis for the gut feeling or impression?
I think a huge chunk of it is unconscious bias. Even Google has admitted to the fact that this plays a role in the lack of diverse hiring practices there (a typical example of is when Joe gets the job despite the fact Jose has the background that makes him a better fit).
No one is free from this bias. I often wonder how much of our daily interactions are based our very compelling (yet sometimes unreliable) feeling that we say is "our gut reaction". And how much weight should we put on this "truthiness" (the sense of truth we get from our guts as suppose to facts, a word coined by Stephen Colbert in 2005).
To be fair, I do think at some level it's an evolutionary thing. I mean, we make snap judgement all the time due to our internal survival mechanism. Constantly on auto pilot, this thing is running in the background sizing up the environment for some type of threat. For some, unfortunately, this dependency on associating absolute truth or meaning to this buggy system of unconscious bias is EXTREMELY dangerous. Case in point, many of the African American males who are targeted by police. That stats on this stuff is mind blowing. If you don't know, this just doesn't magically begin in the criminal justice system. It can be even be found in education.
So, needless to say, if you are white and well off you are more likely to get a pass or leg up for several things ranging from
1. Asking for some change for bus fair
2. Getting the interview and
3. Jail sentences just to name a few.
I think the associations we make regarding the sound of an individuals voice is just as much as a marker for us when associating social credibilty as their image or looks. I actually have a pet theory that there is a weird correlation that goes unnoticed between how someone looks vs how they sound as it relates to social influence. Like, if you have "the look" of someone who, on average (other things equal), is of an assumed higher social influence (e.g. relatively attractive, well dressed in a affluent neighborhood, etc.), then you get to have some wiggle room in the sound of your voice (e.g. No one is going to mess with a huge NFL linebacker even if his voice sounds a little lady like).
A great historical example is of Abraham Lincoln. He was a great (and tall) leader but known to have a higher pitch voice which some found slightly odd. I'm sure we've had an experience where we saw someone and were jolted by how they spoke. I'm sure at some level we make split second assumptions about their personality, possible interests and even education levels as the result. If someone has a really ridiculous laugh some may think the general assumption is that they are, perhaps, less intelligent, less attractive, or less...whatever cultural associations you have developed based on your scope of experience. (For some reason I think of that episode of friends where Chandler Bing, played by Matthew Perry is dating Janice Litman, played by Maggie Wheeler).
On the opposite side of the spectrum, if we were to listen to a British accent at a conference in America, there are some who would put more weight and validity on what that person is saying. Why? Because there is this deeply rooted yet subtle acceptance of this idea that the sound of a person's voice, not just looks, have varying degrees of influence/credibility associated to it.
Don't get me started on how your physical demeanor and mannerism plays a role in how you are perceived. That is probably another blog entry, but I just want to say this and I'll leave it here: This is why some people get so defensive, especially in minority circles (of which I am included in case you didn't know by now). Because the bar for social credibility is a bit higher for us compared to our lighter skin comrades there are certain levels of social proof to fulfill in every day environments that are just given when it comes to someone else (often times of a lighter skin tone).
Sometimes you can feel individuals culturally "sizing you up" and conducting a micro social-class audit on you when it comes to how they want to engage. Is this everyone? Of course not. But this is a reality that many of us of color face day to day. Because the very nature of unconscious bias is, well, unconscious, it is EXTREMELY difficult to have a healthy dialogue around it. We are left with school assemblies, college workshops, maybe a diversity class made mandatory as common core and that is it. In my experience, many of these attempts to educate others in these settings are done poorly where more than half of the audience checks out and writes it off as a "kumbaya" moment. Other than that we are left with random blogs, facebook rants, and youtube videos that tackle the subject but would rarely be viewed and consumed by those who need it most because, again, it is an unconscious bias. If you don't know you don't know about these topics you won't be compelled to watch it let alone be open to the fact that you may have to realign your views and values.
This is especially true when we consider skin color AND clothes. It is interesting to note how one race can have crazy undone hair with a disheveled look be considered "hipster" but someone else who may be a darker skin tone wear the same type of clothes be considered impoverished or "of the ghetto". (Wait, there is one thing people of color could do to instantly change that! The thick black framed glasses!)
So those business speakers who give advice to students are essentially right when they say, 'You are your brand". In fact, I've used this same mental framing when speaking to students about how they should hold themselves in social settings, more specifically academic settings. But it is a shame when you have to to take it this far in modern America today.
So if I had to give some advice to a young person of color in regards to increasing their odds at gaining more social influence and credibility, I would say start with your appearance. You would have to align your image with the impression and general associations you want to leave on the average stranger you meet in public. Of course, this is always hit or miss since these kinds of associations (e.g. wearing a business suit) can give different impressions on different individuals based on their experience (scum of the earth banker vs. young professional).
Of course you can say screw it and not play that game. I know I can do more with leveraging my appearance better when navigating the power institutions in society but there are many of us who don't really care for it and would rather much make up for it in other categories, like the ones listed below.
Of course, in some careers this is perfectly fine, if not expected. We all remember seeing those brilliant professors who didn't iron their shirt with different color socks on and always fumbling around with papers (remember that physical demeanor thing? If you always look lost or losing something, people take the liberty to associate that with a lack of competence). Yet, how do professors still have so much influence and social credibility despite this clear violation? It is simple, they hit the credential/experience categories off the charts, that is why. Perhaps at a later time I will tackle those categories of social credibility and influence at a later post.
In the meantime, just remember this: if you ever decide to pass out in public, make sure you are wearing a suit.
Other Categories of Social Credibility/Influence.
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