Power, Gender and Personality

This is an extract from Chapter 15 – Power and Charisma – of my book, How to Get On with Anyone.  

Power, or the lack of it, can also relate to class, race, and gender.  These types of power are often exercised and experienced in subtle, sub-conscious ways.  Reni Eddo-Lodge[1] believes that “racism is woven into the fabric of our world” and researchers on gender equality have often talked about the “glass ceiling”[2] preventing women from progressing. 

Power and Personality Style

Some personality styles seem to naturally appear more powerful than others.  The Mobiliser style, with underlying preferences for Initiating (more extraverted)communication and Directing (tell) language, comes across as confident, decisive, and assertive.  Their “command and control” style and drive to get things done fits our stereotype of a leader.  Where this personal style is complemented by other sources of power, such as position in the hierarchy, the Mobiliser style can be a potent force – for good or ill.  Donald Trump appears to have the Mobiliser style, holds the most powerful position in the world and appears to have a strong personalised power motive.  With this combination, he is likely to take a “bull in a china shop” approach, push for quick action, and lack self-control and self-doubt.  The “Trump handshake” is one of the ways he uses his body language to exert power over others.     

The Synthesiser style does not immediately fit our stereotype of a leader, yet there are successful leaders with this style, including Barack Obama.  People with the Synthesiser style in positions of power can appear “soft”, as their style does not fit what people expect of a leader.  This means that they have to find ways to speak with authority when necessary, for example by initiating more communication and using a more directive or assertive style.  Noam Chomsky explained the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn prior to the 2017 UK general election, as attributable partly to his Synthesiser style “he is quiet, reserved, serious, he’s not a performer”[3].  During the election campaign, Corbyn overcame the downsides of his style to be assertive and confident in public appearances.

People with the Energiser style take an Initiating (more extraverted) role in communication.  Like Mobilisers, they tend to be “out there”, making contact and talking to others, so this gives them a starting point for having a powerful impact on others.  People with the Responding (more introverted) preference, the Navigator and Synthesiser styles, tend to be more internally focussed, they say less and often keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves.  This means that they will have less influence on others, so they have to make a conscious effort to communicate more, both verbally and non-verbally, in order to have a powerful impact.  Theresa May’s difficulty in communicating comfortably in public was probably a contributory factor to the poor results of the Conservative Party in the 2017 UK general election.  

Preferences for using Directing (tell) communication rather than Informing (ask) communication also affect how power is perceived by others.  People with the Directing preference (Mobiliser and Navigator), who are comfortable telling people what to do, are often seen as “one-up” and more powerful than people with the Informing preference (Energiser and Synthesiser), who prefer to ask and explain, and are seen as “one-down”.  This means that people with the latter styles may have to find ways to be more assertive in their choice of words, tone of voice and body language in order to come across in a more powerful way.

Power and Gender

The impression of power created by each style is complicated by gender.  Women are typically seen as less powerful than men and in some cases, their style may contribute to this perception.  There are probably more men with the Directing Mobiliser and Navigator styles and more women with the Informing Energiser and Synthesiser styles. This tends to fit our gender stereotypes of men as task-focussed and women as people oriented.  Energiser or Synthesiser women have a double whammy to contend with – they are female and their styles are perceived as the “one down”, style.  The Energiser style fits our social norms about female behaviour – talkative and bringing people together – and in order to appear powerful, women with this style may need to hold back a little, and be less chatty.   Women with the Synthesiser style may need to be more assertive and less accommodating in order to communicate an air of authority.  Women with the Mobiliser or Navigator styles have the opposite problem and tend to be described as “bossy”, while a man with these styles is regarded as “assertive”.  They may need to adapt their directive style a little in order to be accepted.  Margaret Thatcher’s Iron Lady image came in part from her directing style of communication. 

Body language and the words you use are all part of how you convey a message to others, (see Part 1 of this book).  Women who want to be perceived as having “gravitas” – a word much more often used to describe men than women – may need to adopt a more open (keeping limbs open instead of crossed), expansive (taking up more space), and calm (lack of fidgeting) pose[4].  Women also tend to use more self-undermining language than men, for example, using “just” as in “I just wanted to ask…”,  “could I just….”, and they tend to speak more apologetically when they ask for something. 

Each personality style has a natural power base in its own core beliefs, drives and talents.  Being true to your own style is a good foundation for having a powerful impact on others.  But be aware of the need to draw on some of the behaviours of other styles to round out your own.  And if you are a woman, you may need to make extra effort to project the message you want.

[1] Eddo-Lodge, R (2017) Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race

[2] Hymowitz, C. & Schellhardt, T. (1986) “The Glass Ceiling: Why Women Can’t Seem to Break The Invisible Barrier That Blocks Them From the Top Jobs”. Wall Street Journal

[3] Noam Chomsky quoted in The Guardian newspaper, 11th May 2017.

[4] Bailey, A. H., & Kelly, S. D. (2015). Picture power: Gender versus body language in perceived status. Journal Of Nonverbal Behavior, doi:10.1007/s10919-015-0212-x