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When Your Whisper Is Heard As A Shout

| August 25, 2015

by Jim Bruce

Adam Galinsky, a faculty member at the Columbia Business School, and author of the New York Times article “When You’re in Charge, Your Whisper May Feel Like a Shout,” recalls casually saying to one of his doctoral students, “I need to see you this afternoon.  Can you come by my office at 3 pm?”  He didn’t think much about the seemingly innocuous words he spoke.

At the appointed time, the student arrived, clearly concerned about the unexpected meeting.  Grant proceeded to discuss several small changes in a research proposal the two of them were developing.  At the end of the conversation, the student said, “Never do that again!”  “Do what?,” Grant said.  “Scare me by saying you needed to talk with me.  I spent the whole day obsessing about whether I was in trouble.”

Before jumping to the conclusion that the student must have been terribly oversensitive, stop and think about times when your boss or your boss’ boss has told you that he needs to meet with you.  Like Grant’s student, I suspect that you and I, often feared that we somehow were in trouble.

Grant’s study of the psychological effects of power have led him to see how the words of those with power sound louder to those with less power.  He calls this the power amplification effect

He notes that the problem is that the powerful are often oblivious of their power.  Being in a position of power reduces your ability to appreciate how your words may affect others.

Through his studies, Grant has identified three types of communications that become amplified by power:

Direct communication:  Sometimes, in response to an idea, we summarily dismiss it, “That’s wrong!”  If we say it to perhaps a new staff member, or even someone who has worked with us for some time, it might be devastating.  Or, it could be an unexpected positive statement, “Excellent work!” which you may take as a more general statement about your work than it actually was.  In either case, such feedback can easily be amplified when heard.

Silence:  In his essay Grant recalls an experience his brother had.  During a flight, his brother’s plane suddenly descended 1000 feet in 12 seconds.  People were bounced around and at least one seriously hurt.  There was no comment from the cockpit.  Were the pilots OK or seriously hurt?  (They were OK but simply did not communicate.)  Similarly, our silence can lead the worst-case fears of those who work in our group to run wild.

Ambiguity:  We began this essay with an ambiguous request:  “I need to see you this afternoon.”  It could be something trivial or very significant, or anything in between.  Because the powerful have the capacity to “punish,” such ambiguous statements easily incite worry.

Leaders can manage all of these amplifications by providing perspective.  As leaders we need to be conscious of how our direct communication, our silence, and our ambiguity can affect others.  So, as you go through your week, think about how your position impacts how your words and silences might affect others and adjust your communications accordingly.  Those around you will really appreciate the change.

Make it a great week.  .  .     jim