One of the most common aims people have when coming into a coaching session is a desire to improve their personal impact. When I explore why this is important to them I am told their lack of impact manifests in a variety of ways. This includes not being able to get a point across at an important meeting, worrying that senior leaders don’t know they exist, or being overlooked for golden career opportunities.
Is personal impact something you either do or don’t have? Is it a skill, a character trait, down to looks, upbringing, good luck or acting ability?
In her book ‘Presence’, Amy Cuddy suggests that at the heart of having personal impact is a belief in and trust of our self. We need to overcome the voices in our head which undermine our self-belief, filling us with worry and anxiety over what might happen if we ‘dare’ to put our head above the parapet and make ourselves visible.
Cuddy suggests that ‘reframing’ our anxiety as ‘excitement’ enables us to acknowledge the emotion whilst using it to bring about a positive outcome. The mindset that accompanies excitement will focus us on seizing the opportunity, fostering our optimism and anticipation of joy. Reframing anxiety as excitement prevents the emotion from having an adverse impact on our performance, enabling it instead to bring about positive behaviours.
Think for a moment about someone who you believe has strong personal impact. What do you notice about them? The chances are they are confident, visionary, exude passion, energy, and enthusiasm; perhaps they seem able to make their points with clarity and ease. Also, it is likely that this confidence becomes more engaging and compelling when what they say is congruent with what they believe and what they do. In other words there is complete alignment in their body language, behaviour, mindset, values and verbal content.
Can anyone achieve this? Well Cuddy makes a strong case for just that, which is good for all of us right?
In a nutshell, the key components of her argument, (which she makes more eloquently in her book with oodles of research to back up her points), is that our body posture influences our emotions. If we act confident, standing feet apart, arms wide, adopting a strong, open posture our body produces oxytocin (the feel good hormone) and we start to feel confident. Conversely, if we adopt a closed body language, displaying droopy shoulders, standing hunched over, our internal distillery starts pumping out cortisol (the stress hormone) and we start to experience more negative emotions. Also, she suggests, that if we dress the part of the future self we wish to become, then we start to ‘evolve into’ the part, displaying the characteristics that go with the role we dress up as.
So if you want to improve your personal impact adopt a wonder woman or superman pose, don your pants over your tights and wait for the oxytocin to kick in!
Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden and build theory further suggests that positive emotions enable us to broaden our perception, increase our openness to new ideas, widen our focus, encourage our ability to learn; so increasing our skills and personal resources. Conversely she suggests that if we experience negative emotions, such as fear, anger or disgust, we enter a mindset of self-preservation causing us to narrow our focus, home in on detail, concentrate on the here and now and reduce our openness to new ideas.
Taking Fredrickson and Cuddy’s ideas together suggests that if we want to improve our personal impact, we should ‘act’ confident and positive. This will bring about confident and positive emotions, which in turn will improve our capacity to perform better. An upward spiral of improvement occurs because the more confident we feel, the more positive we become, so the more we are able to learn and the greater our impact on others.
Also we are drawn to people who are positive in outlook and tend to avoid people who are negative (or ‘mood hoovers’). Moreover, research by Van Kleef, Van den berg and Heerdink found that we are influenced by others emotions and this can affect our decision making. If we want to influence others to engage with our change project, displaying positive emotions about it’s benefits is more likely to influence them to participate than trying to scare them into submission through anger and fear tactics.
Hence adopting a positive outlook is more likely to get us noticed and remembered (in a good way) and can also enable us to positively influence the behaviour of others.
At this point some people say ‘but if I act confident when I don’t feel it, I am not being genuine or authentic’. This is not about wilful deceit of others for personal gain; it is about kick starting our own bodies into behaving in the way we want. When we take up an exercise programme, the first fitness sessions are hard work as the actions feel alien to us. We are not skilled joggers, yoga posers, footballers or tennis stars when we start out, but we practice the moves until we can do them subconsciously. If we want to have personal impact we just need to put in the practice and believe we can succeed, then it will come.
It seems such a simple idea and research after research supports this view. As Cuddy says in her book, ‘don’t fake it to make it, fake it to become it’.
Cuddy, A. (2015). Presence: Bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges. London: Orion Books
Fredrickson, B.L. (2009). Positivity, London: OneWorld Publications
Van Kleef, G. A., Heerdink, M. W. & van den Berg, H. (2015). The persuasive power of emotions: Effects of emotional expressions on attitude formation and change. Journal of Applied Psychology 100 (4), 1124-1142