There is a degree of posturing required to survive most roles within any career, from prime minister to newly-hired coffee runner. Posturing is about taking a stance that conveys a message, and then with a little extra effort, looking ultra-comfortable, even bored, in that stance. It’s a true art. And we all do it at one time or another.
Everyone postures sometime
Though they seem to be at the top of their food chains, presidents and prime ministers are required to posture almost every waking hour. Domestically they must give the perception that they are relaxed and confident about their countries’ paths, and to their international audiences they must appear fierce and unafraid in the face of aggression.
In kind, job candidates, seated closer to the bottom of the food chain, must put on a show of mustered or manufactured confidence during interviews and interactions with superiors. While their brains are nervously scrambling for answers, candidates will give a knowing nod and a casual head tilt to give the perception that they are barely breaking a mental sweat.
Posturing and the money trail
Many times extreme posturing works. I spent many years working for large global management consulting firms, the type some snarkists have dubbed ‘Big Time Consulting.’ These organizations ooze an uber-professional feel, conveying “It is not just people that work here; it’s smooth, even-keeled, soft-spoken masters of the trade that work here.” To be fair, the company must carefully manage the look and feel of its workplaces and the people within. In Big Time Consulting it’s the Big Time Clients that pay the bills. And Big Time Clients can be influenced by what they see and perceive when the walk the halls of the company’s offices.
The posturing polka
Sometimes posturing becomes, well, silly. At company social functions the room can becomes thick with it. The posturing dance begins when a gaggle of new hires surrounds one high-level executive. New hire #1 comments on an article in the local newspaper. New hires #2 and #3 nod knowingly, though they’ve not read the article. New hire #4 puts his hands in his pockets, leans casually to one side, and cunningly dodges his ignorance of the local article by asserting “I don’t tend to read many local articles; since I’m so used to traveling I only get the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, The London Sun, China Daily and a little Russian publication called Komsomolskaya Pravda. So I’m bummed I missed that article.”
Ooh, ahh. The other new hires are silenced and in awe. New hire #4 sweeps. He steals the conversation away from new hire #1. And though this young, inexperienced employee still spends his nights whoo-hooing over lines of tequila shots and instagramming funnies, he ventures to soberly reference politics of by-gone eras as if he was there at the time: “Well, it’s not like it used to be when Reagan was president.” If he could get away with it, he’d dye his hair grey just to gain some street cred with the higher-ups.
How much professionalism is too much professionalism
Years ago I was working with a peer from Italy who shared my point of view on this pervasive posturing. It became an inside joke that helped us survive long grueling work days.
We’d wait for a group discussion to, inevitably, become a forum for the grand theatre of posturing. While our peers feverishly focused on one-upping each other, my Italian friend and I would catch each other’s eyes and share a quiet, bottled laugh. We’d excuse ourselves and scurry down the nearest hallway and he’d jokingly admonish me in his thick Italian accent and rolled R’s “Marrrie! More professional. Morrrrrrre proFESS-eee-on-ALLLL!”
As if a mother could tell her child to stand up straight and tall, and then straighter and taller, and still more straight and more tall until the child was stretched out like a rubber band. MORE PROFESSIONAL. MORE PROFESSIONAL. MORE PROFESSIONAL! His broken English expertly encapsulated the silliness of investing energies into creating an image, but not necessarily the right image for that individual.
The good, the bad and the lossy
Posturing is a form of communication and you can sometimes benefit from it. People tend to like individuals that they perceive to be like them. So if you are hoping to get a promotion from a superior, being more like him or her can help you. Posturing could prove to be a great strategy.
Over time, however, this could work against you. You may inadvertently ‘self-select in’ with a team that doesn’t share your values. In the short run you’ll capture the career moves you seek. But after a while you may realize how much of your life—a majority of your waking hours—is spent with your work team. If every Monday morning you must hear and cheer for stories that mean nothing to you, and if there is no audience for your own interests, you are going to lose.
For example, if your leader loves sailing and you profess to be a huge fan of sailing, you are going to spend the next decade engrossed in sailing discussions. If it turns out you were just schmoozing, you may start to feel an increasingly heavy burden in your work. This heaviness can slow you down while others, who have better aligned their work cultures with their personal passions, cheerily glide through their days. Something inside you will say “I’m tired of working with people who don’t share my values or interests; I’m tired of having to double as both worker and actor.”
And if posturing doesn’t lead to such an extreme existential dilemma, it can simply cause a loss in productivity. I’ve seen false-emergencies and unnecessary wheel-spinning occur when, say, a senior-level professional joins a company and is therefore under pressure to hit the ground running. She postures to appear capable and in-control when what she should do is turn to her reporting team members and humbly admit “I’ve got a lot of experience, and I’d like to guide this team toward success, but I’m new to this company’s processes and some of the tools we use. I need your help. Can you explain a few things to me at a 101 level?”
We know the mantra ‘garbage in, garbage out’ holds true in quality. In leadership and team building, we can similarly say “BS in, BS out.” Leaders will get good, useable information from their teams when they lead by example, exposing some of their own genuine selves.
‘Out’ a more genuine you, just trim the edges
While you can’t ever be completely ‘out’ in business, you can try being inclusively out: sharing interests and hobbies that express much of the genuine you, without broadcasting aspects of your personality that are likely to draw a massive dividing line at the 50% marker of the entire population (think: politics).
Share that you like to garden, that you are an astronomy geek, that you are part of a medieval reenactment society, and that, though you sailed once and enjoyed it, you have not since had any desire to enter into the Americas Cup. Don’t share facts that force people to agree or disagree such as promoting your religion’s point of view or taking strong stances on specific political issues.
If you can put aside some posturing, you can allocate more energy toward simply listening. Listen for points of genuine commonality, genuine shared interest, or genuine opportunity for intelligent debate. These types of conversations are likely to be more memorable and more immediately rewarding. And they are likely to steer you down a path wherein you are naturally paired up with people who are a better fit for the genuine you.