“Rebecca, I need more gravitas,” Andreas said to me at the start of our first coaching session, “but I want to be myself. I don’t want to pretend to be someone else.” As an organizational psychologist at the London School of Economics, teaching leadership development in executive education programs and coaching professionals globally for 20 years, I’ve had the privilege of hearing the development goals of hundreds of professionals. They regularly describe wanting to be valued and respected — but they fear that to do so they need to betray their own personality or values.
Having gravitas at work means you are taken seriously, your contributions are considered important, and you are trusted and respected. Gravitas increases your ability to persuade and influence and is likely to fuel the extent to which you rise in an organization. The organization also benefits: You’re more likely to add value if your voice is taken seriously.
It’s easy to associate gravitas with behaviors that fit a particular mold — what I call “surface gravitas.” Generally this involves posturing, dominance, or self-importance that are meant to charm or subdue. Taken to an extreme these behaviors can be counterproductive, eroding your relationships and influence, and even contributing to fear-based cultures that are anathema to innovation.
But even when it’s approached with the best of intentions, building gravitas by simply putting on an outward appearance can be harmful. Research suggests that authenticity — understanding your real self, including your deep-level and conscious thought, emotions, beliefs, and values, and acting in a way that reflects these — may be one of the strongest predictors of well-being. Many people sense this intuitively and shy away from trying to build their gravitas at all, assuming that if you’re not born with it, you can’t acquire it.
But in my work and research I’ve seen that you can develop your gravitas while being true to yourself. The key is understanding that your real self can change as you build a deeper set of meaningful, trusted connections with other people. These findings are based on our research with over 100 professionals across all organizational levels from a wide range of industries and geographies as well as work with coaching professionals specifically.
Consider Mitan, a financial analyst at a consulting firm. Mitan’s manager told him he needed “more gravitas” and specifically that he needed “to stand out more in the room and connect with clients more quickly and effectively.” Mitan regarded his boss as charismatic, but didn’t see himself that way, so he was annoyed and disheartened. “I’ve never been someone who wants to be the center of attention,” he told me.
But through coaching, Mitan was able to find a few techniques that actually felt right for him. The starting point was acknowledging that being able to connect with clients was part of his role. Based on more specific feedback from his boss and other colleagues, we set a new, specific goal for him: asking his clients about parts of their businesses he didn’t know much about, even though it felt safer for him to stick to topics he was more familiar with. Though Mitan was committed to this idea, he didn’t feel particularly confident. Still, he was surprised by how quickly his clients responded to his new approach, becoming more open with him about their challenges. That enabled Mitan to create new solutions for them, further driving their appreciation for him, and his own self-confidence.
Drawing on Mitan’s story and many others like his, here are five ways to increase your authentic gravitas:
Be clear with yourself about what you want.
If you’re explicit with your values and goals, you are more likely to act in ways that support them. Ask yourself, “If someone were to describe me to others, what would I want them to say?” Or, like Mitan, set a specific goal that relates to your work, and find your own ways to achieve it that are in line with your personal values.
Be open to feedback.
None of us achieve our intentions every time. But when our espoused values and commitments don’t align with the experience others have of us, it can undermine our ability to build trust and meaningful connections. Great leaders proactively seek to discover what others’ experiences of them are, take responsibility for them, and learn from them.
For example, in addition to reflecting on feedback from his company’s annual 360-degree reviews, James, a senior manager in banking, asks his team quarterly in one-on-ones: “What could I do differently to make my leadership and our working relationship more effective?” He asks his team and peers for real-time feedback after any meetings or presentations. When he gets a cursory response — “No, that was great, you were excellent” — he pushes back. “Thank you, and what are two to three things I could do differently next time to be better?” This feedback lets James know whether he’s having the impact he intends — and builds his relationships with others.
Create time for broader conversations.
It’s easy to rush from meeting to meeting, and agenda to agenda (especially when working virtually). The danger is that we miss what’s going on with the people we’re working with. What matters most to them right now? What are they excited about? What opportunities do they see? What are they concerned about? Choosing curiosity over efficiency gives you stronger connections and gives you information you can use to have a bigger impact.
Carve out small windows of time between small talk and specific agenda points to find out what’s going on with and motivating the people you’re working with. This can be simple: “Before we get into the details, it would be great to hear how things are going for you — any changes since we last spoke, what your priorities are right now, and what are the biggest challenges you’re facing.” The conversation doesn’t need to be long, it just needs to be meaningful. You may feel that you’re being nosy, but whether it’s with colleagues or clients, when you ask these questions with genuine interest they tend to be well received.
This practice “has completely changed my work,” one senior leader told me, describing how it helped her become more influential and better at driving collaboration. She earned more trust in her relationships, she was able to bring peers from different parts of the business into projects to benefit her clients, and she was better able to see opportunities to work with peers to offer solutions to complex problems.
Beware the self-fulfilling prophecy of “needing more confidence.”
Jennifer, a senior analyst in a professional services firm, works extremely hard and is well-regarded by her peers. She described to me what she regarded to be her greatest professional obstacle: “I’m not confident enough. I should be more confident, I know, but I’m just not.” Because people often assume confidence is a critical aspect of gravitas, it’s usually a big barrier for those who feel they lack it — since they believe they must pretend to get it. What’s more, telling yourself you don’t have enough confidence can be a vicious cycle, with that negative self-talk decreasing your confidence further.
However, we found that professionals we studied who were considered by others to have gravitas didn’t always feel confident — far from it. They did, however, choose to be courageous, acting in pursuit of their goals even though they perceive risks and threats.
For example, Sarah, a leader in a fintech company, was described by others as confident. But she told us how she was regularly nervous and felt out of her comfort zone in her fast-paced environment. She told us that in the mornings she would often look in the mirror and give herself a pep talk, “You can do this. You’ve got this.” Rather than faking confidence, she was clear with herself about her vulnerability and need for courage. From the outside we can wrongly interpret courageous behaviors as stemming from innate confidence. Instead, confidence can often grow from these acts of courage.
Commit to integrity.
Research has suggested that in addition to courage, integrity is one of the strongest virtuous predictors of C-level effectiveness. Furthermore, studies show that that integrity actually fuels courage. As we commit to integrity, we ignite our ability to speak up when it’s not comfortable and to share our views that might be different and therefore risky. In doing so, we increase the extent to which we positively stand out at work, and we can do so with authenticity.
The best kind of gravitas comes from this authenticity, from deep interpersonal trust that you build by being clear about the impact you want to make on others, empathizing and finding out about the people you work with, and adhering to your sense of integrity. You can increase your gravitas and still be you.
Rebecca Newton, Ph.D., is an organizational and social psychologist and Senior Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science and faculty member on the Accelerated Leadership Program at Harvard Law School. Newton is the CEO of CoachAdviser, with 20 years’ experience coaching and advising business leaders and teams in companies globally. She is the author of Authentic Gravitas: Who Stands Out and Why.