Power of “Powerless” Speech, but not Powerless Posture

Assertive speech is assumed to signal competence and power, pre-requisites to status, power, and leadership in the U.S. workplace.

Alison Fragale

Alison Fragale

However, University of North Carolina’s Alison Fragale demonstrated that warmth trumps competence in collaborative team work groups.

Fragale studied “powerless speech,” which has been believed to make a person seem tentative, uncertain, and less likely to be promoted to expanded workplace roles.
She defined “powerless speech” as including:

  • Hesitation: “Well” or “Um”, as known as “clutter words”
  • Tag questions: “Don’t you think?”
  • Hedges: “Sort of” or “Maybe”
  • Disclaimers: “This may be a bad idea, but … “
  • Formal addresses:“Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am”

In collaboration-based work teams, “powerless” speech characteristics are significantly associated with being promoted, gaining status and power.
Interpersonal warmth and effective team skills are valued more than dominance and ambition by team members and those selecting leaders for these teams.

Paul Hersey

Paul Hersey

In contrast, “powerful” speech does not feature these characteristics, is more effective when the task or group is independent and people are expected to work alone.

Ken Blanchard

Ken Blanchard

As in Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership, Fragale concludes that communication style should be tailored to group characteristics.

Li Huang

Li Huang

Likewise, INSEAD’s Li Huang  and Columbia’s Adam Galinsky with Stanford’s Deborah Gruenfeld and Lucia Guillory of Northwestern University demonstrated the impact of “powerful” body language – also called “playing big” –  on perceived power.

Adam Galinsky

Adam Galinsky

Although assuming “larger” postures is associated with credibility and authority, some situations benefit from assuming “smaller”, less powerful postures to establish warmth or to acknowledge another’s higher status.

Lucia Guillory

Lucia Guillory

As noted in an earlier post, Women Get More Promotions With “Behavioral Flexibility”, careful self-observation and behavioral flexibility based on situational requirements are effective foundations to establish group leadership.

-*How do you monitor and adapt “powerless” speech to work situations?


Twitter:    @kathrynwelds
Blog: – Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary 
LinkedIn Open Group Psychology in Human Resources (Organisational Psychology)
Facebook Notes:©Kathryn Welds

5 thoughts on “Power of “Powerless” Speech, but not Powerless Posture

  1. emiliaelisabethblog

    Great work again, Kathryn. This reminded me of a speech by Dr. Adam Grant (an amazing, truly exemplary person, kindness inside out… if you are not familiar with Adam, do look him up).

    Stay strong.

    With sisu,

    1. kathrynwelds Post author

      Thanks for mentioning Adam Grants work on give-and-take of collaborative interactions, Emilia. Im impressed with his versatile competencies in addition to his scholarly contributions: Junior Olympic springboard diver and professional magician.

      Other magician-psychologists (what Marci Alboher calls slash-career) include *Kim Silverman* (*Making Magic Meaningful as a Life Metaphor) and **Richard Wiseman** (Action Trumps Visualization to Improve Performance: Do Something!). *

      *Gentleman Thief illusionist **Apollo Robbins** has moved the other direction, to consult with psychological researchers on Attentional processes (Arc of Attentional Focus: Has Someone Picked Your Pocket While You Experienced Inattentional Blindness?) *

      *These three have in common the ability to carefully attend and observe details that many of us ignore. Theyve applied this skill in research and instructive entertainment.*

      *Thanks for sharing a sample of Adams Grants presentation style that has garnered numerous awards and positive reviews.* *Kathryn Welds* welds@post.harvard.edu 650 740 0763 *LinkedIn | **Blog **|**Google+ ** |Twitter@kathrynwelds **| Facebook notes *

      On Tue, Jul 9, 2013 at 8:20 AM, Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and

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