Leadership Science: The first few seconds of a relationship

No matter where you’ve worked or what you’ve done for work you have probably heard some of the classic, often cheesy, quotes about leadership.

“You manage things; you lead people.” (Admiral Grace Murray Hopper)

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” (Warren Bennis)

“You’ve got to capture the hearts and minds” (Who knows)

While inspirational and helpful at a very high level, I have found that quotes like these are often used in teaching and training as a substitute for giving real, actionable, insights. Ed Catmull — co-founder of Pixar — wrote about this problem in his book “Creativity, Inc.” Feeling he was struggling as manager, Ed picked up several of the most popular books about management. He said “I read many such books as I set about trying to become a better, more effective, manager. Most, I found, trafficked in a kind of simplicity that seemed harmful and that offered false reassurance. These books were stocked with catchy phrases like ‘dare to fail’ or ‘follow people and people will follow you’ or ‘focus, focus, focus’. This last one was a particular favorite piece of non advice. When people hear it they nod their heads in agreement as if a great truth has been presented, not realizing that they’ve been diverted from addressing the far harder problem; deciding what it is that they should be focusing on! There’s nothing in this advice that gives you any idea how to figure out where the focus should be or how to apply your energy to it. It ends up being advice that doesn’t mean anything.” (Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.)

The purpose of this article and future articles on leadership is to give practical advice that comes from good research intertwined with a few of my own experiences. These will not be fluffy articles, but I will try to use stories as often as possible to help you retain the information you’re learning here. In my opinion, the best leadership advice enables you to go from a high level vision to real life application. High level concept quotes will be shared when they can be used to help guide us to greater understanding, not just to provide you with false reassurance.

Starting Relationships

On July 29, 1918, chance connected two of the most revered leaders of the 20th century. At Gray’s Inn in London, an assistant secretary in the Navy — Franklin D. Roosevelt — and the Minister of State for War and Air Minister — Winston Churchill — were at a small gathering together. As the event progressed Roosevelt gave a short speech to the group and eventually found himself in conversation with Churchill. Roosevelt remembered the experience long afterwards. Churchill, when questioned about the encounter years later, didn’t remember having met Roosevelt at the event.

We can’t go back in time and examine all the reasons why Roosevelt wasn’t memorable, but we can discuss why he didn’t suffer from this problem all his life. Roosevelt apparently became quite memorable as he went on to be elected president 4 times! The greatest number of any president in history. This was before the number of terms a president could serve was limited to two terms.

I believe the ability to be memorable — in a good way — is a critical skill for leaders because of the snap judgements people make about us. In a fascinating group of studies, researchers demonstrated how these snap judgements impact others impressions of us. In one study, students were asked to rate a professor at the end of a full semester of classes, after one month of classes, after the first class, and within seconds of meeting the professor. The amazing results? There wasn’t a significant difference in the student ratings of the professor. The student ratings came out to roughly the same score regardless of whether or not the students were measured just seconds after meeting the professor or after an entire semester together. These results have been corroborated by several studies including this one, as published by Harvard magazine.

I found these results astounding and the implications for leaders is clear. The question I believe we ought to be asking ourselves when meeting new people is “how can I make a great first impression?” Odds are that initial impression you make will stay locked in for sometime. Fortunately for us, a lot of research has been done on this important topic. Lets delve in.

Your Brain

Researchers have observed the brain activity that occurs when people first meet each other. Two key areas of the brain light up during this interaction. The amygdala and the posterior cingular cortex. The amygdala is a part of your brain involved in emotion and decision-making. It helps govern our motivations in order to help us navigate social settings. The posterior cingular cortex is where the brain performs autobiographical and emotional memory. It is also used when trying to get ones bearings. Together these two parts of the brain help us build our first impressions of people. Interestingly, these two parts of the brain are stimulated in an similar way when we are trying to assign prices to things. (Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-luck/201302/the-science-first-impressions)

What does this mean for leaders? You’re getting sized up the moment you meet someone. When you are assigning a price to an item you’re checking it for value. People do something similar when they meet you. One of the first things they need to know is whether or not they can trust you.

Your Body

Trust can be conveyed in many ways and your body is a critical part of the communication. Your hands, posture, and eye’s all help someone know if you can be trusted. When you meet someone, be sure to have your hands out where they can be seen, be confident in your posture with your shoulders back and chin up, and make eye contact.

Showing your hands is a sign of trust. As our brains evolved we likely learned that if you can see a persons hands you can be more confident that they aren’t holding a rock or club behind their back. In a wonderful bit of research, Vanessa Van Edwards and team found that when you break TED talks into tiers based on the number of hand gestures used there is an interesting correlation. Those Ted talkers that scored the highest number of views — think Temple Grandin, Simon Sinek, and others — averaged over 465 hand gestures in their 18 minute presentations. Comparatively, less popular TED talks average around 270 hand gestures. Hands matter!

Whether it’s power poses or just good posture, how you position your body in conversations says a lot about you. Fold your arms and you risk others thinking you don’t care about what they have to say. However, if you stand facing someone with your hands on your hips or at your sides you have a greater chance of making a good connection.

Eye contact has been shown to be critical in making good social connections. Remember flushing with embarrassment when that girl or boy you were looking at in the 7th grade caught you staring? You can’t say there isn’t power there! According to Psychology Today “Looking someone directly in the eyes during conversation is the key to making any social, professional , or romantic connection. We rely on eye contact to communicate and connect with one another on a conscious and unconscious level.” (Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201403/the-neuroscience-making-eye-contact)

Also, never avoid the opportunity to shake hands. When we touch another person our body creates oxytocin. Here’s the quick scoop on oxytocin “It’s sometimes known as the ‘cuddle hormone’ or the ‘love hormone,’ because it is released when people snuggle up or bond socially. Even playing with your dog can cause an oxytocin surge, according to a 2009 study published in the journal Hormones and Behavior.” (Source: https://www.livescience.com/42198-what-is-oxytocin.html) Remember, when it comes to snap judgements you need all the help you can get and oxytocin will help you when it comes to social bonding. Just don’t go snuggling with colleagues, a simple handshake will suffice!

Your Communication

After sizing you up physically, you’re now being measured based on what comes out of your mouth. Here you must be careful. Not enough and you will likely not be remembered, too much and you’re that egotistical maniac that can’t stop talking about himself. You'll likely be remembered, but probably not for what you hoped.

So, why do we remember people or things? The science behind this is crazy deep, but at a high level we remember things that are novel and emotion helps strengthen memories — we remember how we feel. That means you’re going to strike out if the first thing you say upon meeting someone new is “so, how’s the conference going?” That’s what the last 20 people said. It isn’t novel and it leaves me with no emotional response besides “meh.”

You need to get the other persons attention and get them to think you’re worth knowing in a very short period of time. To do this you need to create novelty and you need them to feel something positive.

Consider trying some of these options as conversation starters to spice up your social interactions:

  • Consider asking “So, if you weren’t locked in at this conference all day, what would you do with a free day here in [name of city where the conference is being held]?” This question shows that you’re adventurous and will likely elicit a smile. Remember, we like positive emotions! People will remember how they feel and novelty. This question typically does well in both of those categories. I have a list of questions like this that I’m constantly trying out in social settings.
  • Throw out a compliment — people love to get praise — then follow up with a question. If you can notice something unique, like a brand they’re wearing or a nice ring, this can go a long way. Just don’t get too creepy about it!
  • Consider telling a very brief story followed by a question. Our brains absolutely love stories. A few years ago I walked by George Takei, one of the original Star Trek cast members, at SXSW. For the rest of that day I was able to use that story as a conversation starter and then ask “Have you passed by anyone else famous here today?” By asking this question I gave the person I was speaking with an opportunity to contribute to the social interaction — they feel at ease and that they’re capable in a social situation. Remember, most people have to get drunk to interact socially at these events, my goal is to make the social interaction easier for them. It makes them feel like they’re crushing the interaction.
  • Search for common ground. If you are planning ahead of time for a conference you could look people up on LinkedIn and find common connections. There are times I go to a conference looking to connect with just two or three important people at the event. I make it a point to remember who our common connections are and bring up them when I meet the people I’m interested in connecting with. They usually say something like “You know [common connection’s name]? How’s she doing these days?”
  • Do someone a favor. A few years ago while at a conference a woman mentioned this was her first time at a conference in our industry. I offered to introduce her to a few people and be her friend if she ever needed someone to walk the exhibit hall with. Years later we did a project together because of our excellent initial social interaction at that conference.
  • Give people positive signals. Almost everyone needs positive reinforcement. When someone genuinely likes you, and tells you so, it is difficult to not like them in return. When initially meeting someone, refrain from saying things like “not me, I can’t stand that.” While this may be who you are, it’s not helping your situation. Try to find common ground for agreement and, if you really feel that way, let the person you’re speaking with know that you liked getting to know them and that want to meet them again.

I’m hopeful that one of these tips can help you grow into a better leader. Who knows, you might just be the next Franklin D. Roosevelt, but in order to be that person you’ll likely need to perfect your ability to be memorable. Whatever level you find yourself at career-wise, I’m confident there’s room for improvement in your ability to be memorable. As an example, I found several opportunities for improvement as a leader while writing this article.