Why Every Leader Needs “Status Glasses” (To Practice Raising and Lowering Their Power)

I was once at a meeting with two dozen colleagues where a newly hired authority figure walked into the room with an air of dominance. He sat down at a table up front with a fixed gaze, chin up, and hands clasped firmly in front. With a narrow glance around the room, this new boss declared with a scowl that everyone in the room needed to do more of the type of work that we were already doing well. With no desire to connect with us or read of the room in any way, within five minutes off he went to his next meeting. Byeeee!

Fast forward to a few years later. With that boss unsurprisingly having moved on from our organization, we had a new person in that position who entered a meeting to address a developing crisis. Before we even started, this leader went out of their way to talk to various people, sat in chairs and lowered their head and shoulders to look up at others, and nodded as people were speaking. When the meeting started, they stood upright above everyone else with their fingertips on the table, sharing their appreciation for everyone in the room.

Then this leader sat down, and with wide eyes and a glance at each person in the room shared an approach I’ll never forget: “I want you all to know that before we get going it’s okay to ask for help and it’s okay to make mistakes. We will find our way through this challenge, but I’m inviting everyone to figure this out together, knowing that we’ll each run into many bumps along the way. Now let’s get to work.” What a difference.

So, I’ve been using “authority” and “leader” here purposely because authority does not equal leadership. Simply being in a position of authority does not mean someone is exercising leadership skills. An entry level employee might be practicing more leadership skills than a CEO. Truly. Sitting in a nice corner office no more forwards leadership than having a fancy job title. I take a deeper dive into these distinctions here.

But what I want to center today is a practice that’s even more within everyone’s reach. It’s so transformative for communication and leadership you’ll wonder why they didn’t teach about it in grade school. I’d like you to put on what I call “status glasses,” or an imagined pair of glasses that allow you to see how every act of communication asserts a level of power.

Yes, people do possess power when in positions of authority. Yet looking at how power levels shift through moment-to-moment behaviors is much more fundamental to what happens in everyday life. So, let me offer two ways into this insight before getting to an immensely practical takeaway.

Put on some status glasses. Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

Power Up, Down, or Across

Any of us could watch a conversation between two or more people unfold and characterize each response as involving an up, down, or across power level. That is, every act of communication between two or more people could be designated “one-up” (an act where the speaker raises their power, elevates themselves, or expresses dominance), “one-down” (an act where the speaker lowers their power, downplays themselves, or expresses submission), or “one-across” (an act where a speaker equalizes themselves with others). Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson go so far as to say that such maneuvers are an axiom of communication.

A fun exercise I run in classes is to have two students meet. One person says the word “hello” to the other in three different ways: as one-up, one-down, or one-across communication. It’s amazing to see how putting these distinctions into the open automatically changes the way each speaker says each sentence and shifts their body language.

Just like my former boss communicating dominance, in one-up communication students raise their chins to look down on the other person, move slowly, and hold themselves tightly. In one-down communication, they lower themselves, move in a more fidgety manner, and interesting nonverbal tics arise such as long “erms” at the beginning of sentences. The most interesting to see is one-across communication where, among the many different moves I’ve seen, students reach out to shake hands with the other person, provide a natural give and take in the conversation, and often try to match the other person’s nonverbals.

Here’s an interesting visual I found showing the patterns that can develop when at least two people are interaction:

Source: Em Griffin, A First Look at Communication Theory, 170; adapted from Rogers and Farace, “Analysis of Relational Communication in Dyads: New Measurement Procedures.”

Making Skillful Status Shifts

As a reflection of how people approach one another, actors and improvisers have long been tuned into this aspect of communication. In one of the most illuminating books that I’ve ever read, Keith Johnstone writes that “every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless.’” Some of the types of behaviors that go with low or high status moves correspond to movement, speech, pitch of voice, posture, breathing, touch, looking at others, social norms, calmness, and questions.

From a list of different status moves, here’s some behaviors that tend to go with high or low status behavior: 1) For high status “speaking slowly and using pauses,” “keeping hands away from the face,” “taking up more space,” “keeping the head still while speaking,” or “making sustained and direct eye contact.” 2) For low status “moving in a jerky or nervous manner,” “excessive facial expressions and head movements,” “reducing the space our body takes up by holding arms against body, crouching shoulders, pointing toes inwards,” “touching hair,” or  “beginning sentences or breaking up sentences with verbal fillers like ‘er,’ ‘um,’ ‘like,’” and more.

Here’s where this gets interesting. Johnstone claims that those who can shift their status skillfully will best meet the demands of different people and situations. In my favorite example, a classroom teacher who always engages in high-status behaviors will come across as maniacal or dictatorial to students, just as a teacher who always plays low status isn’t likely to gain students’ respect or seem like they know what they are doing.

Like my new boss who entered our meeting and engaged in a variety of behaviors that put us all at ease, the best teachers tend to shift their status skillfully, sometimes using high status moves to assert authority when that’s needed (e.g. when offering expertise or evaluation) or lowering their status to create connections with others (e.g. to open up conversations or create spaces for psychological safety and trust to flourish).

Some Qualifications and a Challenge

To be clear, there’s real, material power that is wielded in this world. Some people possess the decision-making ability to use resources in ways that are certainly not distributed equally. Putting on “status glasses” doesn’t necessarily change the status quo. But it does allow us to see what’s often invisible: the way that trust and legitimacy got whipped up into existence in the first place. When presidents make fun of themselves, they are engaging in behaviors that often push their power level down and their audiences’ power up to increase their likeability. This stuff works in tricky ways. And this is before we get to the deeply systemic and structural constraints that create power inequities around race, gender, and other variables that precede and influence whatever behaviors play out in a situation.

Related to that issue, another caveat is in order. We must be careful with a lot of the ways in which talk about “body language” seems to assume that one behavior always corresponds to one meaning. As Olga Khazan explains, the U.S. norm for “megawatt smiles” doesn’t play out well in other countries, such as Russia. Verbal and nonverbal behaviors can have vastly different meanings, since agreement about meanings is always socially constructed. As a cross-cultural constant, however, people will perceive that every act of communication broadcasts power up, down, or across an interaction.

With all this in mind, here’s my challenge to you. Spend an entire day looking at the behaviors of others with “status glasses” on. See what you notice about how you and others seem to feel as a result. Look at how people sit down on a couch, the pace with which they speak, the gestures that they use or don’t use, and ultimately how power rises, falls, or neutralizes in every act of communication.

More than that, to connect with others or work across difference well, practice making skillful status shifts. Imprology states that looking closely at this matter “allow[s] us to explore our status strategy” and “to experiment with alternatives.” That’s the biggest goal of all here. Practice in raising and lowering our power in communication will often unleash choices that we didn’t even know were possible.