Category Archives: Impression Management

Are You Weird Enough? Three Ways to Stand Out

This article was originally published on lifehack.org.

On the infinite list of traits that make people successful leaders, there’s one that is too often overlooked—being weird. Why do we disregard the power that comes from being different? It is time to embrace what makes us weird and incorporate it into our lives.

To be labeled a weirdo should be synonymous with being an innovator, a thought leader, an entrepreneur. It is weird to see something and think, “I can make that better.” It is weird to contemplate a solution for a plan that seems to be working just fine. It is weird to speak out against popular opinion with a new, contradictory idea. These are not things “normal” people do.

To make weird a part of our company culture, it helps to specify what we’re talking about. Being weird is not about bucking the norm simply for the sake of being different or seeking attention. Anyone can wear unusual clothes or ironically play a kazoo. In fact, if you start any initiative with the thought, “Yeah, this is gonna be weird,” then you are missing the point.

I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.—Frank Zappa

The intent of embracing your weirdness is to unleash the unconventional thoughts you are already having. We all have an inner drive to accomplish goals that are daring and innovative and progressive. However embracing your weirdness is more than feeling this inner drive; it involves putting action behind your thoughts. If you’re ready to take on this challenge, here are three practices to get you started:

#1 Acknowledge that you have issues

I had a mentor who started meetings with each person stating their “issues.” This lighthearted exercise was intended to break down social barriers and generate social cohesion. When I was asked this in my first week on the job, I said that I don’t have issues. The room laughed knowing that we all have issues.

These issues are the individual quirks that make us different. It can include something as simple as your predilection for starting every day singing a Neil Diamond song or your ability to quote every line from The Big Lebowski or that you’ve watched so much Walking Dead you create an emergency exit strategy whenever entering a room… or maybe that’s just me.

Where’s your will to be weird?—Jim Morrison

The point is that we must own our weirdness before we have leverage it. Admittedly, this can be an uncomfortable exercise—it’s engrained in us since childhood that weirdness is a bad thing. Just keep reminding yourself that people who blend it, do not stand out.

#2 Stop being boring

If this sounds too easy, that’s because it is. You can actively will yourself into being weirder simply by making the effort to be more interesting. A few suggestions:

  • watch less TV, or at least watch a greater variety of shows
  • do not list “checking your social media” as a hobby
  • try different restaurants
  • engage in substantive conversations, and do not talk about the weather… ever!
  • create a bucket list of things to do, new skills to learn, and places to go
  • stray from mainstream media
  • engage in one remarkable activity every weekend (or at least every month)
  • stop expecting to be entertained by others
  • and stop expecting others to do all talking

It’s good as an artist to always remember to see things in a new, weird way.—Tim Burton

#3 Be the CWO (Chief Weird Officer)

Once you’ve embraced your weirdness, it’s time to strengthen it throughout your organization. Leaders must make an exerted effort to structure their team in a way that nurtures the weird so people can more fully reveal and utilize their talents. This includes fostering a work environment that negates the social stigmas that stifle offbeat creativity. Where imperfection is not just allowed, but encouraged as a means of development and learning. Where sameness is not tolerated. Where speaking up is incentivized, even when they’re wrong.

To bring out the weirdness, leaders can also help those on their team find their niche. In her book Stand Out, esteemed strategy consultant Dorie Clark discussed the need to be recognized as an authority or expert through a strong professional reputation. This can happen by expanding your focus, but more often weirdness is tapped by “niching down” or narrowing focus on a topic. If the leader exposes team members to a plethora of opportunities to learn and grow, they can find their niche and “weird out” on it.

I always encourage young people who ask me for advice to be themselves. Whatever is weird about you, whatever weird thing you do to crack up your siblings, that other people at school maybe say, ‘Man, you’re weird,’ that’s the most valuable thing you have. Because if you try to homogenize yourself and act like other people on television or other people in the audition room, then you’re taking away your weirdness.—Nick Offerman

Being weird means putting yourself out there. This involves a degree of vulnerability and a willingness to take on risk. “Normal” people stifle these insecurities; that’s what makes them normal. But those who embrace their weirdness are eager to break through the “we’ve always done it that way” mindset. It may feel lonely at times, but it is ultimately more fulfilling and leads to bigger results. As they say, “Go weird or go home.”

Is Substance for Suckers? One More Leadership Lesson from Donald Trump

Back in August, I wrote an article on leadership lessons from Donald Trump. At the time, the GOP Convention was about to begin at which time Trump would officially become the Republican presidential nominee. While I was not thrilled with the thought of a Trump presidency, I was able to provide a few research-supported leadership techniques utilized by Trump that can be beneficial to anyone in or aspiring towards a leadership position.

Such techniques as repeating key words, maintaining a strong vocal presence, and creating a common enemy have earned Trump the highest position in the USA. It doesn’t matter that he has no actual plan to make America great again. Or that his twitter account is filled with nonsensical tirades. Or that he consistently contradicts every statement he makes (often within the same speech). Trump won, and he did so by connecting with the crowd.

Ah, the crowd—that nameless, faceless group of supposed likeminded people. If you’ve read James Surowiecki’s popular book Wisdom of Crowds you may think the populace is smarter than the individual (and since Trump lost the popular vote there may be merit in this argument). I, however, continue to side more towards Gustave Le Bon’s classic 1895 study The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.

In his research, social psychologist Le Bon discusses the attributes of those who successfully lead crowds. First, he describes them as “more frequently men of action than thinkers.” They “are not gifted with keen foresight” but that’s considered to be a good thing since it prevents them from expressing doubt and inactivity. Confidence is king and these leaders display it in droves.

Next, crowd-based leaders are able to stir an arousal of faith through ideals pertaining to religion, politics, or societal ideas. Their intensity of faith gives power of suggestion to their words and, according to Le Bon, influences “men gathered in a crowd [to] lose all force of will, and turn instinctively to the person who possesses the quality they lack.”

The great events of history have been brought about by obscure believers, who have had little beyond their faith in their favour.—Gustave Le Bon

The final attribute is simplicity. Leaders of crowds deliver boiled-down concepts presented in a straightforward, uncomplicated manner. Context is distracting, as is an overreliance on details.

Notice that these three attributes do not include expertise, know-how, or anything resembling substance. They are all predicated on how a leader presents himself—confidence trumps foresight, faith in the institution trumps strategy, and simplicity trumps intellectual discourse.

There was a recent study in Industrial and Labor Relations Review stating, “the benefit of having a highly competent boss is easily the largest positive influence on a typical worker’s level of job satisfaction.” Sure, you may believe employees are far happier when their leader has a deep technical expertise in the core activity of the business, but let’s get real. We had a presidential nominee with more technical expertise than any other candidate in the history of the country, and she did not win.

If you decide to model Trump, stop combing through your morals, beliefs, and worldviews to formulate an ideology. Don’t waste your time building expertise to become an individual of substance. To be a leader in the vein of our new President, all you need is a brand… and that brand is winning. Display an air of self-assurance. Commit to a sentiment, not any one belief. Then deliver it in one-word declarations.

In the end, I’m still betting on competence. And though I am interested in how emulating Trump’s leadership style pans out for you, you may first want to wait and see how it works for the United States.

Optics: The Most Overused (and Over Emphasized) Term in the Presidential Election

clinton-trump-handshake-bannerIt’s a little soon to look back at the 2016 presidential election for a shrewd analysis of lessons learned, but if there has been one prevailing theme, it’s the emphasis on optics. Optics places an increased value on how something looks versus how it actually is. It’s the battle between imagery and substance… and in this election, imagery clearly won.

‘Optics’ is hot, rivaling content.—William Safire

Over the last 18 months, headlines have declared “Media Figures Praise Optics Of Trump’s Mexico Visit” or “Clinton Team Fretted About Foundation Optics.” It’s not bothersome to briefly discuss how something appears; the problem is that the punditry is obsessed with the optics and covers it as if they are actualities. Just during the post-debate chatter, how much airtime was dedicated to Clinton and Trump’s “presence” on the stage versus their talking points?

But it’s more than the news coverage. The campaigns have designated optics as the single most important qualifier to win the election. Why discuss substantive policies and global ideology when you can hurl hollow on-liners to rally your base? Even if they have detailed plans, there is no political upside to discussing them in-depth; it would only give their opponent fodder to tear them down without having to mention to own plans.

dukasis-tankThe focus on optics in politics is not a new phenomenon. Remember when George W. Bush stood in front of the “Mission Accomplished” banner? Or when Michael Dukakis took a picture in that tank? Or when George H.W. Bush looked at watch during a debate? Or the GOP “outrage” when Barack Obama addressed an airline attack while vacationing in his home state of Hawaii? All optics, no actual significance.bush-mission-accomplished

Going back to 1978, Jimmy Carter’s special counselor on inflation was the first to use the term optics when he told business leaders that if they went along with the administration’s anti-inflation measures, they would be invited to the White House as “a nice optical step.” At the time, The Wall Street Journal immediately rebuffed these overtures by writing, “Optics will not cure inflation.” Now, bragging about optics is the norm.

The truth is that we are to blame for optical dominance. Over the last 30 years, cable news has routinely shown loops of candidates’ quippy one-liners and we have rewarded them with higher ratings. It was only a matter of time until politicians took notice and made this the crux of their campaigns. It increased their airtime, which legitimized/propelled their candidacy, without forcing them to create an actual policy.

As business leaders, I hope we learn the right lessons from this campaign cycle. Be aware of your optics, but use them to further your substance. If you want a culture of teamwork, demonstrate public displays of teamwork. If you want a culture of innovation, demonstrate public displays of innovation. This is not the empty optics we see in political campaigns; you are modeling and reinforcing the company’s core values.

Leadership is more then looking like the leader. You are responsible for making decisions that affect the livelihood of others, the quality of products/services you provide, and the communities in which you live. These responsibilities demand (and deserve) an informed, substantive leader. Success predicated on optics is short-lived; choose a more sustainable path.

The Art of Peer Pressure: Where’s Your “I Voted” Sticker?

i-voted-stickerHow do you convince others to follow your lead? That’s the question election officials have been asking since the dawn of democracy. The importance of voting seems self-evident; yet, voter turnout in the United Stated typically hovers around 55% for presidential elections and a dismal 35% in the mid-terms.

Since we aren’t going to mandate voting, like some other countries, we need a technique that exerts pressure to participate in our government. Taking bribery off the table (it leads to corruption) and coercion (it leads to tyranny), there is an effective research-proven method that many States already use—appealing to people’s social standing, aka their vanity.

A study by four researchers at Harvard, UC Berkeley, and the University of Chicago found that a key motivator to vote is that we enjoy telling others we voted. In the experiment, homeowners were notified that the researchers would show up after the election to conduct a survey on their participation. It turned out that people were significantly more likely to vote when they knew they would be asked.

Economist Patricia Funk echoed this sentiment when she studied elections in Switzerland. The country attempted to increase voter turnout by incorporating postal voting to make it more convenient. Instead, turnout declined, especially in smaller communities where the significance of seeing your neighbors at the local polling station was removed. Funk concluded that “social pressure creates incentives to vote for the purpose of being seen at the voting act.”

If you think you’re immune to this level of pressure, consider whether you’ve ever worn your “I Voted” sticker that is handed out at polling stations. If so, congratulations, you are as susceptible to societal influence as the rest of us. That sticker is an advertisement demonstrating your civic duty. It makes you feel good to show it off and applies social pressure on others to get to the polls.

Consider this the next time you are trying to persuade your team into action. Instead of directing them, utilize peer pressure so they are influencing each other. Promote the volume of patronage you’ve generated and create opportunities for public displays of support. Fancy sticks don’t hurt either.