How to combat face-ism and increase your influence at work

By Dr. Amanda Nimon-Peters, Professor of Leadership, Hult International Business School
Dr. Amanda Nimon-Peters, Professor of Leadership at Hult International Business School, says you can create status for yourself irrespective of physical characteristics
Exerting influence in situations where you don’t have formal authority or physical status is possible, says leadership professor Dr Amanda Nimon-Peters

Many people in the workplace have experienced being judged or ignored because of their physical appearance – sometimes known as ‘face-ism.’ Not being stand-out attractive, physically imposing or loudly spoken can lead to the perception that you are less authoritative than others who are louder, taller, or more attractive.  

The fact this happens does not mean that everyone in that workplace is a nasty bully, or that they intentionally believe your contributions to be less valuable. As a social species (just as in the animal world) we continually evaluate other human beings at both a conscious and subconscious level. At a subconscious level, humans show a broad tendency to attribute greater status – and thus greater attention - to individuals who are male rather than female, taller rather than below-average height, more attractive rather than below average in attractiveness and Caucasian rather than anything else.

Age can also affect status. When complete strangers aged 18 to 65 on jury service need to determine a leader for the group discussion, they are four times more likely to appoint someone aged over 45 than someone aged 18 to 44 years old. Not only is it possible that this entire process has occurred unconsciously, it is also supported by group consensus. A taller or older man is not necessarily the one putting himself in charge: everyone is putting him in charge.

When we operate as a team, department, or committee, that evaluation results in a ranking of team members according to their perceived status. In turn, this affects the extent to which we listen to them and are influenced by their arguments.

Dr. Amanda Nimon-Peters says you can create status for yourself irrespective of your physical characteristics

So is it possible to exert influence in situations where you don’t have formal authority or physical status?

If you find yourself in one of these potentially ‘low status’ categories – such as being a below average height female, it is certainly possible for you to create status for yourself irrespective of your physical characteristics:

1 Recognise negative stereotypes in order to diminish them 

The status ranking effects of our physical features are largely based on cultural stereotypes – and sadly they affect our unconscious judgements. Consider whether or not you might be subject to negative stereotypes about your ability. Prepare in advance to counteract those stereotypes. How could you label yourself in a manner that classifies you as a strong performer instead?

2 Prepare authoritative, data-based statements 

So long as the argument involves one opinion against another, the person with the higher status will win by group consensus. However, if the lower-ranked person has impactful data to support their point, they may be able to increase the authority of their argument.

3 Demonstrate contextual status factors 

You may not walk into a meeting with a physical appearance that communicates high status, but you can increase your perceived status if you can demonstrate contextual status factors such as overall level of education, prior experience in a specific job role or industry or quantified expertise in the topic of discussion. Past achievement in the topic or problem currently being addressed by the group can also increase your status.

4 Speak up with confidence 

Sadly, but truthfully, humans tend to confuse confidence with capability. If you are less inclined to make your voice heard, of course your personality type in no way renders your ideas less worthwhile. It’s just that people’s brains will tend to make that assumption. To generate status and influence for yourself in a professional group, plan to participate early and confidently.  

5 Dress for status 

Rather than thinking of dressing to look stylish or formal, think of dressing in line with the status and authority you want to establish. This doesn’t mean that you need to come into the meeting wearing a lab coat. It means you need to reflect on the strengths you wish to portray and ask, ‘how would that person dress?’. Dress for status rather than attractiveness. While research on status characteristics tells us that attractive people often achieve higher status, be careful as research also shows that female candidates wearing more revealing clothing tend to be rated as less competent by both male and female assessors.

What can change these subconscious, stereotype-driven assumptions about competence?

The more we experience leaders and successful role models who represent a wide and dissimilar range of characteristics, the less likely we will be to make subconscious associations between physical factors and intellectual capabilities. This is yet one more reason why diversity in leadership matters: it can change our limiting assumptions about people’s competence.

If you are in a position of authority or leadership in a company, it is important to recognise that we cannot see these biases played out in ourselves or in our teams – that is the nature of subconscious biases. They are invisible to the actors involved, yet measurable when the wider-scale data are analyzed. The only way to address such biases is to assume they are present, unless you have introduced specific steps to minimise them, such as inviting team members to submit proposals anonymously, or designating an interruption-free speaking period to each team member.

Dr. Amanda Nimon-Peters is currently Professor of Leadership at Hult International Business School. Dr. Amanda’s book Working with Influence: Nine Principles of Persuasion for Accelerating Your Career is available from Bloomsbury and Amazon.​​​​​​​

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