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Showing Up

| August 7, 2018

by Jim Bruce

… How are you seen?

“All the world’s a stage …  And, one man [or woman] in his [or her] time plays many parts.”                                                                                     William Shakespeare (1623)
If, indeed, all the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare asserts, then each person, including ourselves and especially those we see as leaders, are certainly visible both at expected, and unexpected, times by expected, and unexpected others as they are on their particular stage.
As an example, years ago, more than five decades at this point, I was a young assistant professor and was asked to attend a student demonstration about a contentious university decision. In the context of that evening’s demonstration, I made an impertinent comment to a graduate student teaching assistant who was participating in the demonstration. The next morning, shortly after I arrived at my office, my phone rang. It was my boss’s, boss’s boss, fortunately a good friend, who asked, what was I thinking when I made the comment I had made. He wasn’t there. How did he know? This was a valuable lesson for me: You never know who will witness or hear about a particular moment of your stage appearance or the impact that it might have. Be mindful of your performance.
In what ways do we show up? Sylvia Ann Hewlett in her book Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success,1 suggests three ways: how we act, how we speak, and how we look. All three of these aspects of our presence show up in another’s “first impression” of us.
Alexander Todorov,2,3 professor of psychology at Princeton University, has devoted much of his research to first impressions. In his writing and speaking, he notes that people cannot not form first impressions. After all, more than half of the human brain is devoted to visual processing.  (A characteristic of all primates.) These impressions are often formed in less than 50 milliseconds, the time associated with a quick passing glance.
In the two references cited above, Todorov tells an interesting story: In the early 1800s, first impressions based on facial characteristics were very popular. So popular that the scientist Charles Darwin was almost denied the chance to take the historic Beagle voyage on account of his nose.  The captain of the ship did not believe that a person with a nose like Darwin’s would “possess sufficient energy and determination” for the journey.
Today, particularly when we are interacting with strangers, we rely on shortcuts – hunches, “gut” responses, and stereotypes, that we’ve arrived at from our first impressions. The problem with this, given Todorov’s research, is that our first impressions are not really that good, particularly if our focus is on the individual’s face. And, further, our brain will take what we observe in the other’s behavior and attribute it to his or her character. For example, if I sense from our conversation that you may have trouble meeting commitments on schedule, I may conclude that you cannot be trusted.
Given this, I believe that an individual needs to be very intentional about the authentic first impressions he or she makes. Each of us, when we engage in a new situation, needs to ask ourselves about the first impression we ideally want to make in the up-coming interaction. I’m not suggesting that anyone create a first impression that is untrue but that you carefully think about the authentic first impression you want to make in this instance. (For example, professional actors have learned that if they “show up” for an audition displaying first impressions similar to the character they want to portray, they are much more likely to get that part.)
Sue Shellenbarger4 makes a number of suggestions that you may find it helpful to add to your “vocabulary” of actions:

  • Facial expressions are important even when you think no one is looking. Remember, you are still on stage.
  • People tend to distrust others whose habitual expression (i.e., the one we go to when we’re alone) is grumpy, disapproving, or angry.
  • Sudden switching from a downbeat expression to a big smile will undermine trust. 
  • Pause to think before you rush to respond to a question or comment.
  • Paying attention to your breathing will foster a more relaxed and confident change of position.
  • Stand with your hands relaxed and visible at your side rather than hidden in your pockets or crossed defensively in front of your body.
  • Focus intently on the other person in your conversation.
  • When you shake hands, rather than extending your arm to shake the other’s hand at a distance, relax your arm and lower your elbow to your side, drawing the person closer to you, thus showing trust.
  • In a group setting, turn and face the person you are speaking or listening to.
  • Don’t reach across the table to shake hands, walk around to the other’s side of the table.

Recently, Terri Citterman, member of the Forbes Coaching Council and CEO of an executive coaching firm, was asked where her confidence comes from. After a few moments, she responded with a story from her childhood:  “When I was a kid playing co-ed baseball, my sister once told me I could run as fast and hit the ball as far (of farther) than the boys. I believed her. Then, when I was up to bat, I hit a home run. When I was up again, I hit another. The third time I was up, the other coach yelled to his players, ‘Back up! That girl is up again!’” Citterman noted that those words changed her; today, when her confidence wanes, she channels that 9-yearl old girl. 
This leads me to ask you, what do you do when your confidence wanes? What past experience from your life might you channel to give you the confidence you need?
There is much more that can be said about showing up and we will say more in future Tuesday Readings.
However, in today’s reading, I do want to say a few words about appearance, about how you dress. Given that more than 50% of our brain is dedicated to visual processing, we cannot not take note of how each of us dresses. Today’s formal or informal dress codes are very different from those I encountered when I first joined the MIT faculty. Then male faculty were expected to wear a suit, or blazer and slacks, with a white shirt and tie. Women faculty wore conservative dresses or skirts and blouses. Senior staff and many junior staff wore similar attire. Today, it is very different with many different, more local dress codes.
While it’s hard to come up with a definitive code, I have, over time, come up with four rules that seem to make sense and work well:

  1. Dress appropriately for your next job. Or, alternately, dress so that you are attired like the top 25% of your colleagues. If you do this, your colleagues will notice. And, you may get some good-natured ribbing. I think that it’s worth the effort.
  2. Your attire should not be sloppy, dirty, rumpled, or smelly.
  3. Dress so that your manager would not be embarrassed to take you on an unexpected meeting with the CIO or someone higher in your university’s hierarchy.
  4. Dress consistently with the image and first impression you want to portray.

We do create first impressions whether or not they are accurately visualized by others. We do need to create ones that are authentic and convey what we want to say about ourselves. Each of us needs to be mindful of what we are “speaking” with this voice, be conscious of it, and work to develop the authentic presence we want to have.
I trust that you will make your week a wonderful one.  .  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, HarperCollins, 2014.
  2. Alexander Todorov, Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Princeton University Press, 2017.
  3. Alexander Todorov, Talks @ Google: Book Discussion – Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, August 2017.
  4. Sue Shellenbarger, The Mistakes You Make in a Meeting’s First Milliseconds,, June 2018.
  5. Terri Citterman, Four Ways To Manage Your Executive Presence,, November 2016.