Leadership Presence: 7 self-sabotaging behaviors that keep professional communicators from the C-suite

Credit: istockphoto.com/pixelfit
Credit: istockphoto.com/pixelfit

Are you “leadership material”? Do you have what it takes to get to or influence the C-suite? Most important, do others perceive you as a leader? As a communicator, I am sure you know that perception is reality. If you are not perceived as a leader, regardless of your array of qualifications and strong record of achievements, you will not be getting that promotion you crave and deserve.

Research clearly shows that there is a significant correlation between how you present yourself and the extent to which your work is being appreciated in the workplace. In fact, a 2012 study by the Center for Talent Innovation revealed that executive presence counts for 26 percent of what it takes to be promoted. Naturally, this is not to say that your leadership potential only rests in your presence. Having the necessary background, experience and skill-set is the necessary condition to get promoted; it is just not sufficient. You also need to project yourself to others as a leader.

So what is this so-called leadership or executive presence? Author Sylvia Ann Hewitt, through years of research, has gotten it down to three traits:  gravitas, communication, and appearance. Gravitas involves your level of confidence, your decisiveness and how well you manage yourself and others under stress. Communication relates to your speaking skills, your ability to command a room, your assertiveness and your body language. Lastly (yes, it’s true), appearances matter. Luckily, you don’t have to be a model to be perceived as a leader, but you do need to be well-dressed, groomed and polished.

One would assume that a professional communicator would have that second trait, “communication,” nailed down. After all, this is what we do for a living, right? Not necessarily. In fact, I would argue that our professional communication training, along with the nature of our jobs, often counteract our leadership presence. Here’s a countdown of seven self-sabotaging behaviors you might be engaging in as a professional communicator.

Not speaking up at meetings

You are probably trained to engage in active listening. Part of your job might also be to ensure others in your team are being heard. You probably strive to be an excellent facilitator at meetings and maximize teamwork. But are you being heard? Do you contribute the most that you can? Or are you just validating others?  Often we talk ourselves out of volunteering our insights for fear of being wrong or sounding stupid. We strive to be perfect, as opposed to just joining in the conversation. It is as simple as this: If you do not speak up, you will not get heard. If you are not heard, your leadership potential stays locked inside you.

Allowing interruptions

If you allow interruptions when you speak, it is probably because of your desire to facilitate dialogue in order to foster fruitful group dynamics. However, that practice makes you seem less assertive and more doubtful. Women are more likely to allow interruptions when they speak and men are more likely to interrupt others. If you get cut off, let the other person know that you have not yet completed your thought. The key here is not to come off as rude or curt. Do it nicely: Smile, use humor and a warm tone. You might want to thank the other person for their enthusiasm and tell them you will give them the floor in a minute.

Too much head-nodding

Only few people realize how head nodding affects other people’s perception of them. Two issues arise with head nodding. First, if you do it too much, you might be perceived as too passive, too agreeable. Second, gender differences in head nodding complicate things and send mixed signals. You see, when a man nods, he often means he agrees with what is being said. When a woman nods, she means she is listening and understands the message, not that she necessarily agrees with it. Thus, too much head nodding around men can be misunderstood and misconstrued as submissiveness.

Does that mean that you should you stop nodding your head altogether? Absolutely not. But be aware of when and to what extent you do it. Perhaps limit it to times when you truly agree with the statements made and/or when you feel it is essential you signal to the other person they should continue with their argument.

Allowing others credit for your ideas

This is not about your boss or colleague stealing your work and presenting it as their own. Albeit a serious issue, too, our scope here is more specific and refers to a relatively more innocent, yet more common occurrence. You say something in a meeting, but no one acknowledges your idea. Then a colleague or your boss says the same thing and everyone raves about it. You are left feeling dumb, invisible or both.

As communicators, it is our second nature to promote our company, our products and services, our business leaders. But we often fail in promoting ourselves. Therefore, the next time someone else gets credit for something you have said, correct the misconception. This is yet another case where tone of voice and body language play a significant role. Keep it positive and polite; highlight that you and the other person are in agreement, reiterating your point.

Using weak language

Oftentimes in order to promote collegiality, we use weak language that diminishes our leadership presence. Do you find yourself making statements and then seeking validation? For example, do you say “This is a great idea, right?” or “This project will be a success, don’t you think?” If that is how you speak customarily, people are likely to perceive you as lacking confidence.

Another confidence-lacking speaking mannerism is the overuse of modifiers and qualifiers, such as “just, only, hopefully, I guess,” etc. For example, why say “I have only been on the job for two months” when you can say “I have been on the job for two months”? Do you notice the difference in confidence? Too many qualifiers and modifiers minimize the message and the messenger. You probably use those to sound humble, but they constitute stumbling blocks to your leadership presence.

Uptalk, vocal fry and fillers

Avoiding weak language and modifiers is all about sounding confident and full of conviction. Same with this self-sabotaging behavior. Speaking with conviction means you avoid uptalk, vocal fry and fillers. Uptalk is ending a statement on an upward infliction, as if it were a question.  Vocal fry is when the voice falls into the lowest vocal register (a croaking, creaky voice). Vocal fillers are insertions such as “um,” “like,” “so,” “you know?” etc.

I recommend slam poet Taylor Mali’s “Totally like whatever, you know,” which showcases what an epidemic these linguistic tics have become in the U.S. today. Although there is much to be said about how we express ourselves and the extent to which we should change to conform to a business norm, at this point in time we know one thing for sure. These linguistic traits (especially the combination of them) make you sound unprofessional and directly undermine your leadership presence.

And…the No. 1 self-sabotaging behavior: Avoiding public speaking altogether

It is probably counter-intuitive, but most professional communicators actually avoid pubic speaking. You might prepare speeches, presentations and speaking points for your boss. You might be writing scripts and being very active on social media. But when it comes to you presenting in front of an audience, you avoid it.

This might be because you prefer being behind the scenes, because the nature of your job is to train and promote others as spokespersons, because you are afraid of public speaking, or all of the above. Think about it for a while. How will you project yourself as a leader if you do not speak publicly? When was the last time you proactively took an opportunity to speak? The next time the opportunity presents itself, take it. Speak to be heard. Be heard to count.

By now I hope you would have realized that leadership presence can actually be learned. It is not an elusive charisma one is born with. I urge you to power up your presence starting now: project gravitas, communicate confidently, avoiding self-sabotaging behaviors, maintain an appropriate appearance, and you will soon be truly heard in your organization.


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