To What Degree Does the Job Make the Person?

Jobs shape us in many ways

Published: Apr 15, 2011

We've supposed for a long time that certain behaviors foster relationships that can determine success or failure.

Now improved technologies (such as brain imaging) combined with imaginative research are producing new insights into how people perceive and influence one another. It is leading to advice and training designed to change behaviors that influence perceptions and possibly even increase job opportunities and on-the-job success.

James Heskett is a Baker Foundation Professor, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School
James Heskett is a Baker Foundation Professor, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School
The work of Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist on the HBS faculty, and her colleagues has produced some of the most intriguing results. This research concludes that by far the strongest influences that we have on one another result from a person's perceived warmth and competence. These two dimensions help us understand how we think about and act toward others.

Some conclusions are that:

    * When assessing someone else, warmth plays a more important role than competence.
    * When assessing ourselves, we believe that competence (the capability of someone to carry out intentions) is more important.
    * Without knowing, we often assume that there is a "trade off" between warmth and competence in a person. These two dimensions help us understand how we think about and act toward others. We admire warm/competent people, envy (and sometimes scapegoat) those who are cold and competent, pity those who are perceived as warm and incompetent, and have contempt for the cold and incompetent.

In work described in a September HBS Working Knowledge column, Cuddy and her fellow researchers also analyzed the effects of behaviors—expressions, body language, postures, the degree of assertiveness, etc.—on perceptions of competence and warmth. Expansive postures ("power posing") and confident behaviors, for example, convey perceptions of competence. This work can provide the basis for coaching people in how to behave.

Meanwhile Joshua Ackerman and his coresearchers are concentrating on the effects of touch (with origins in the womb) and surroundings on behaviors. For example, they conclude that, among other things, a person's comfort affects negotiating behaviors. If you want to drive a hard bargain, sit on a hard chair, while making your counterpart very comfortable. In short, control your surroundings and behaviors.

But perhaps most interesting of all, Cuddy's team has found evidence that the act of assuming power affects hormones. It raises levels of testosterone (associated with power and dominance) and reduces levels of cortisol (denoting stress) in ways that resemble people already in positions of power. In short, it raises the possibility that behaviors can be influenced through a change in jobs that changes body chemistry. Presumably, the effect varies with individuals.

If this research continues to produce such insights, is it more than a short step to conclude that we can give people tests that predict the degree to which an individual's behaviors may be affected by a job change? To what extent does the job make the person rather than vice-versa? Can it be predicted? If so, what does this mean for management recruiting and development in the future? What do you think?

Joshua M. Ackerman, Christopher C. Nocera, and John A. Bargh, "Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgements and Decisions," Science, 2010.

Amy Cuddy, "Just Because I'm Nice, Don't Assume I'm Dumb," Harvard Business Review, February, 2009, p. __.

Amy J. C. Cuddy, Susan T. Fiske, and Peter Glick, "Warmth and Competence as Universal Dimensions of Social Perception: The Stereotype Content Model and the BIAS Map," Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 40 ( 2008), pp. 61- 149.

Julia Hanna, "Power Posing: Fake It Until You Make It," HBS Working Knowledge, September 20, 2010.

Craig Lambert, "The Psyche on Automatic," Harvard Magazine, November- December, 2010, pp. 48-52.

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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