In the Lift of an Eyebrow: The (Un)intended Impact of Power

Even the most moderate and democratic executives can morph into erratic, mercurial autocrats — and they may not even be aware of their transformation or the havoc it wreaks.

Here’s a sample scenario: A senior leader is present at the meeting of an exec or two, a workgroup, or a consortium of decision-makers from around the globe. The purpose might be to discuss plans, results, or company policy.

After a standard presentation or innocuous statement by one of the participants about events or expectations that had previously appeared to be well established, or at least well understood, the senior leader raises an eyebrow quizzically, as if to say, “Oh, really? You think so?!”

The presenter senses trouble — a sort of disruption in the field — and breaks the charged silence with a quick, perhaps nervous or defensive explanation. The leader, who now senses confusion in the room the way animals smell fear, asks a series of tough questions, becomes oppositional, or hijacks the conversation to her favorite topic.

The assembled employees, who are always on high alert for executive clues and cues, think something along the lines of, “Oh, now we know what she really wants!” and head back to their respective workgroups to report on the incident.

Thus, quite often, are new initiatives begun and significant policies suddenly reversed! And yet all that actually happened was that the leader happened to remember something interesting from a prior meeting, or found the presenter’s style awkward and lost patience, or maybe just needed another cup of coffee or an early lunch.

Check, People!

You can’t always do it during the meeting, but at the very least, send an emissary soon after the event to validate the leader’s intent. Here’s a sample approach:

“Ms. Big, when you raised your eyebrow while Paul was presenting the budget, we weren’t sure what you meant. Were you indicating that you no longer agreed with the Golden Helmet plan and instead wanted us to shift resources to the Broken Arrow initiative? Or were we reading you wrong?”

It’s true: Sometimes executives get bored and decide to inject a little excitement into organizational life by instigating a wild goose chase. I’ve worked with some of those execs. But more often than not, the raised eyebrow indicates that the leader simply has something else on her mind at that moment, or is puzzled by something particular that has just been said.

The Eyebrows Have It

The exec’s change in expression doesn’t necessarily mean she wants a change in plan — particularly not if it’s a plan she’s already agreed to. She just wants an answer, the way everyone likes to have answers to their questions and, as the senior person, she actually has the standing to ask for the answer right now.

The preponderance of empirical evidence suggests that the eyebrows of those in authority — as well as facial expressions and gestures in general — can have a powerful impact, sort of like the butterfly effect, on humans and events.

So, instead of being whipsawed by facial expressions and upending initiatives, or sending people and resources scattering, be sure to verify whether what you read in a leader’s face was truly a command or merely curiosity.

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