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View from the Street: The Gravitas Tightrope – 8 things that can drain your credibility in the workplace

Frank O’Donnell

Senior Partner

Gravitas is an alluring quality. We know it when we see it. We can often feel it when someone enters a room. Most of us could name someone in our life who embodies it.

And yet, it is somehow elusive. Hard to accurately define and difficult to attain.

It doesn’t correlate with power, status, or wealth. We all know politicians, celebrities and businesspeople who lack gravitas. Boris, we’re looking at you.

Perhaps because of this it is one of the most common questions in coaching conversations, and in the media and presentation training we offer to CEOs and future leaders at Charlotte Street Partners.

Young people seek it. Executives want to hone it.

Gravitas means you are taken seriously, your contributions are considered important, and you are respected and trusted. In a business context it increases your ability to persuade and influence those around you, both colleagues and clients.

Ultimately, that leads to better organisational performance, promotions and increased personal confidence. This can be a virtuous cycle.

Gravitas is something that can be mastered and worked on. The complexity arises in that it must be authentic; you can’t have gravitas by pretending to be Barack Obama or David Attenborough.

This is all a tightrope that needs to be navigated. Conversational but not too talkative. Captivating but not too opinionated. Funny but not ribald.

And it has become even more complex in the virtual world: how do you develop presence if most of your interactions with colleagues and clients are on a screen?

Gravitas is like a complex compost, developed over years with a rich and balanced mix of experience, expertise, sagacity and poise.

One way to think about this is to consider the elements that can undermine our gravitas.

  • Filler words: Used sparingly, hesitations such as “um”, “like”, “kind of” are human. Used excessively they are a problem. Failing to articulate your thoughts clearly, rambling, or using so-called vocal disfluencies, can undermine your perceived competence, if you know what I mean.
  • Hedging language: “Maybe this is irrelevant, but . . .I may be way off here, but…” Sometimes these phrases are inserted to be diplomatic, but overuse can make you seem unsure of your points. Definitely, maybe, ban the word “just”.
  • Poor Posture and Body Language: Slouching, avoiding eye contact, and any closed body language can will convey a lack of authority.
  • Emotional Reactivity: Becoming visibly frustrated, defensive or angry when people disagree with you detracts from your ability to command a meeting. Often people do this, without realising, through their facial expressions.
  • Failing to listen: Not allowing people to speak, interrupting, not paying attention or disregarding others’ opinions shows a lack of respect and undermines your credibility.
  • Exclamation marks: Littering your written communications with screamers or dog’s dicks (as they are known in newspapers) won’t enhance your credibility. Has there ever been a sentence that has benefited from an exclamation mark? Emojis are from the same family. Limit their usage.
  • Lack of Preparation: Turning up unprepared for meetings or presentations signals incompetence, unreliability and a lack of respect.
  • Lack of gratitude: Don’t take all the credit when things go right. It’s almost always a team game. Those who don’t acknowledge others come off as selfish and insecure.

Avoiding all of this sloppiness helps to ensure gravitas will not drain away.

All of this is a conversation starter. The real learning starts with honest feedback from friends, family and colleagues. And then being mindful of your habits.