Why Confidence Shrinks When Dealing With Senior Leaders
Otherwise formidable and self-confident leaders can sometimes turn into shape-shifting lizards in the presence of powerful and high-status colleagues or clients. The confident style they normally exude turns to jelly. They come across as reticent, junior, passive, and obsequious. The weak style they project erodes their credibility and reduces their influence.
While most people naturally become more socially attractive in the presence of those with high status, some leaders take this adaptation to an extreme. They change their style to such a degree, people who report to them would hardly recognize them. They defer more, speak less, agree quickly, offer disclaimers, and become overly polite.
Why does this transformation happen to some even highly confident leaders?
Effective leaders naturally adapt their behavior to fit the situation. Because they want to be accepted and liked by those with more influence, they modify their behavior to achieve that objective.
But some leaders are too acutely aware of status in social situations. Status is so important to them that they are always aware of the hierarchy in the room. Their heightened focus on their own status influences them to act powerfully and boldly when surrounded by those they view as having less status. In contrast, when in the presence of high-status others, they become passive and overly accommodating.
If you know a leader who adapts too much around high-status people, the best advice is to ask them to shed their concern for status and to focus exclusively on substance and content. Coach them to resist the urge to seek approval by focusing on the issues and not the people.
Reminding them that status shouldn’t define who they are can sometimes help as well. High-status people are just people, after all. The most effective leaders do their best to treat them as such.