Ever been told at work that you lack gravitas but then not told what that actually means? You’re not alone.
As a business psychologist focused on leadership development, whether I’m working with an individual or a team, we are essentially focusing on behaviour change. Yet when it comes to “gravitas” there is no one set of behaviours that define it. That’s why I hosted an event on Gravitas recently. It is also what prompted me to do a little informal research.
I went back through the hundreds of coaching plans I have on file in recent years and came up with eight categories of development needs that are often labelled as a lack of gravitas. Keep in mind that if an executive has been selected for coaching, and lack of gravitas is a part of it, the individual still has a great deal of ability otherwise the organisation would not invest in coaching. So this list is not a checklist. What this list does show is how varied the term “lacking gravitas” can be. In fact, gravitas seems to operate more as a quotient. Do enough of the right things and avoid the wrong things, and you can be considered to have gravitas.
As we determined at the Gravitas event, what is gravitas varies from person to person. And just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too is gravitas. Gravitas is also hugely culturally dependent–the culture of the organisation, as well as the country you work in. On a positive note, in looking through all those coaching plans, I found that the percentage of female clients labelled “lacking gravitas” was no greater than the overall percentage of women I have coached.
So here it is, from the countless times I have asked coaching sponsors and 360 verbal feedback respondents, “When you describe so-and-so as lacking gravitas, what is it exactly that s/he does that leads you to conclude this?” my informal research on the definition of gravitas, from least frequently cited to most frequently cited.
1. Time management.
If you arrive late to meetings consistently, look flustered, ill-prepared, or overwhelmed, it goes against your gravitas quotient. While this is the least frequently cited, I think that is because it is rather difficult to get to executive level and still have this problem.
2. Clear, succinct communications.
It is hard to be seen to have gravitas if you ramble, repeat yourself, and can’t seem to get to the point.
3. Reading the social context; self-awareness.
Like time management, I think this one is really a must have. It is hard to imagine anyone lacking in self-awareness or the ability to read the social context as being considered to have gravitas.
4. Managing Emotions.
On a rare occasion, to get heated or impassioned about something is exactly what is needed in a leader. At the same time, those leaders might not be considered to be gravitas role models, either. Lose your cool too often and you are actively considered to be lacking in gravitas.
5. Too Modest; Lacking Assertiveness.
This one was applied to more women than it was men. No surprise there as gender differences in how we use language (see the work of Deborah Tannen) will attest to. Those who are saddled with this label are often also labelled as lacking gravitas.
This is about how you walk into a room, and the impact you have in meetings. Do people pay attention to what you say? It also has to do with deportment and how you carry yourself. This is chiefly about being able to project confidence and belief in yourself that your contributions are worthwhile. If you are struggling with low confidence, “faking it ’til you make it” will get you somewhere. Read more about confidence in this blog here.
7. More big-picture focus, less operational day-to-day focus.
It is hard to be seen to have gravitas if you are sweating it out in the weeds of day-to-day operations and fire fighting. To have gravitas requires a longer-term, bigger picture approach. This is not about ignoring what happens at the micro level. It is about selecting the right people in your team, trusting them to manage their work well without your interference, and focusing on the strategy.
8. Relationships with peers across the organisation.
Cited twice as often as #7 above, relationships with peers matter the most! Often people who have had a big promotion and are now in a team of cross-functional peers from other parts of the organisation, and feel awed and humble about it all can get labelled as lacking gravitas. For example, a younger executive who is promoted onto the Management Board. If that person doesn’t spend dedicated time getting to know the peers individually, they won’t work well together on the team. If the executive also has not personally and psychologically accepted the mantle of his level, and insteads adopt a deferential or quieter position on the team, the lacking gravitas label is easily applied.
The Gravitas Quotient
No client cited as lacking gravitas had more than three of the above areas in his or her development needs. Many of them who were considered lacking gravitas were already HIGHLY SKILLED in some of the other areas in the above list. For example, one client needed to work on his executive presence by being less casual with direct reports and less deferential to the Board, to which he had been newly appointed. He was already very strategic in his thinking. Another client had the presence and relationships, but needed to spend more time on strategic communications and a less operational focus, in addition to better masking his disappointments.
Get Out from Under the Label
If you ever get told you lack gravitas, ask the person a question about the areas above that you think you may lack and try to gain more information. Here are some sample starter questions using the list:
- “When you see a lack of gravitas, are you thinking about my relationships with others, my attention and focus on the detail, or something else?”
- “Is it something to do with how I communicate with others? If so, how would you describe that for me?”
- “Sometimes in meetings others don’t seem to pick up on what I’ve said. Does it have something to do with that? Would you help me develop my delivery?”
- “I know I was really disappointed about the decision to cut the product line. Is the way I objected strongly an example of when I was lacking gravitas? What should I have done differently to be more effective in getting my concerns across?”
Consider also the role of culture. If you can find a place where your energising strengths best fit the organisation’s needs, you will soon be out from under the label of lacking gravitas.