How do you make other people feel?

Andy Yap

Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour

Programme Director for Executive Presence and Influence

Andy Yap is Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD and programme director for our new online programme, Executive Presence and Influence. Here he spells out what it means to have presence and to exert influence, and why it matters.

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Andy, what do we mean by the terms “presence” and “influence” in the context of business leadership?

In broad terms, we’re talking about the way that other people perceive you as a leader, and the cues that you give off about some important dimensions. These are your competence, warmth and how trustworthy you are. We understand competence as your technical ability to do the job in hand, and it dictates how likely others will be to want to engage with you – or not. If you are perceived to be warm, other people will be more inclined to open up ; they will feel greater psychological safety around you, and will be more ready to share potentially important information. And trust is absolutely key, in the sense that colleagues or team members need to feel able to trust in your competence, in your authentic warmth and motivation – that you are on their side – and that you share similar values. So to thrive as a leader in any setting or context, you really need to be perceived to have these qualities. And a lot of this is down to the kind of presence you create and the degree of influence you can bring to bear. 

You are the programme director for INSEAD’s new online programme, Executive Presence and Influence. How did you get into this area?

My interest was sparked by my early experience in the Singapore army during military service. I was intrigued by the way that behaviour and body language appeared to tie to rank and hierarchy. As recruits ascended up the ranks, the concomitant increase in status of authority would translate into more assertive or expansive gestures. Conversely, those at the bottom of the pyramid were systematically more contractive in their body language. I wanted to explore the psychology at work here, and really dig into the ties between assertiveness and body language as well as the cultural dimensions and differences that can influence non-verbal interaction in human beings. This became the focus of my doctoral studies and research. I was and still am fascinated by the kinds of techniques and practices that we can deploy to shape other people’s perceptions of our power, authority and particularly, our authenticity. 

Why the fascination with authenticity in particular?

In any setting where leadership matters – where agency is a clear determinant of outcomes – there needs to be a clear difference between persuasion and manipulation. If you want to influence other people to show up, to bring their best selves and make the effort, then you need to be able to demonstrate that you are focused on the group goal or the common good and not on your own personal or selfish ends. It’s about being perceived and understood to be authentic in your concerns and objectives, and transparent about the information that you share. 

Things like authenticity, transparency and trust must have been so much harder for leaders to convey during the pandemic with the transition to virtual working. Is that a part of your motivation for teaching this programme now?

Absolutely. On top of all the difficulties we were experiencing, communication just became that much more difficult. Virtual meetings made it harder to read cues and interpret body language so our interaction became less fluid. That said, we’ve learned a lot about the virtual environment and how things like camera angle, lighting and background can also really influence the way that other people perceive us. And as we transition to a kind of mix of virtual and face-to-face in the wake of the pandemic, there’s so much more to think about – how we dress, our posture, our gestures as well as the kinds of virtual backgrounds we use in online meetings, for instance: are they too impersonal or corporate, too distracting, too revealing? 

These things sound complex certainly and possibly a little abstract. How do you go about teaching presence and influence in a tangible or concrete way?

The programme is very concrete, in fact. We blend the academic concepts with a lot of real-life examples and videos of presence and influence in action. And throughout the programme, our participants engage in their own focused Action Learning Project, where they actually go away and use some of the many tools and techniques that we share in their own work environment. They’re encouraged to experiment, to try out a technique with a particularly obstinate or stubborn colleague, say. And they use different principles that we explore to make their ideas more sticky and persuasive. 

How do you measure success doing these things?

Participants come back to the programme across the five weeks that we’re together to unpack their experiences and the learnings and to share this with peers and with INSEAD coaches. The programme is really calibrated around building the knowledge and understanding first, then experimenting and practising – both in live meetings with peers and in the workplace – and then the reflective part, where we really look at which techniques work with which people and under which circumstances. And all of this is supported by coaching and peer reviews. Five weeks on the programme is really just the starting point though. The idea is that we furnish you with a fundamental toolkit that will continue to inform your leadership practice long beyond the programme. We want participants to go on thinking about how they use their presence and influence, and how they ensure that others respect them, trust them and see them as effective.

How would you characterise the takeaways for leaders doing this programme?

I’d say it’s about opening people’s eyes to the importance of their presence and influence and the people skills that they need to deploy as a core function of leadership. Our participants take away a highly valuable toolkit and behavioural techniques that work across different contexts, cultures and settings. However they also emerge with extraordinary new insights into their own personality, charisma and the impact that they have on other people. Because we know that what other people remember most is not what you say or do – it’s the way that you make them feel that ultimately matters most.

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