Getting Ahead By Getting Along

Professional success through social coordination.

Posted Aug 31, 2009

Consider our now ex-president, George Bush. It could be (legitimately) claimed that, prior to his first term, he did not possess the most aptitude or experience of all the candidates vying for the Presidency. Yet, he reached what is arguably the pinnacle of professional success. He achieved this promotion in large part by being well liked and by exhibiting traits that allowed voters to get an easy read on him. He "fit" well with people. The same is true of many of our leaders and the people who move quickly up the corporate ranks.

This kind of interpersonal fit, and its beneficial effects, is referred to in the psychological literature by terms like fluency and flow. When a people's personality and behaviors map onto our expectations and are readily understandable (i.e., are fluent), when we are highly socially coordinated with them, we are better able to predict their future actions. This is one reason why supporters liked referring to Bush as "a man of strong convictions" and a "straight shooter." This ease of interpretation and prediction feels good, physically and mentally. Effective social coordination makes people happy and energized, and conversely, awkward coordination feels bad and wears people down. The positive feelings elicited by this interpersonal fit are unconsciously translated into feelings of trust for the people with whom we fit. That is, if we feel good around people and can easily understand where they are coming from, why not trust them?

It takes an extraordinarily minor amount of coordination to produce positive feelings. For example, research on nonverbal mimicry by Tanya Chartrand and colleagues has demonstrated that imitating a person's mannerisms (e.g., crossing your legs, touching your face, changing postures) can lead that person to like you more and to feel that the interaction went more smoothly. There are many practical business implications for such findings. In one relevant study, waitresses who repeated the order of their customers (mimicking their verbal behavior) received significantly larger tips. In another study, salespeople who mimicked customers both sold more product and were evaluated more positively by those customers. Directly matching a person's behavior isn't always the best strategy though. For actions that signal dominance such as postural and some emotional displays, behaviorally complementing the other person may work better than imitating that person. Larissa Tiedens and her colleagues have studied complementary behaviors extensively and found, for example, that sitting with a wide open posture when another person is sitting in a more closed, restrained manner increases the liking and comfort felt between those two people. Thus, think mimicry in most situations, but complementarity when a social interaction involves actions related to dominance or status.

The idea of trying to coordinate effectively with people who have a hand in your professional destiny sounds well and good, but it might leave some feeling uncomfortable. Does this count as sucking up? Would I be trying to subliminally persuade people to like me? Clearly, the answers are yes and yes. But perhaps using unconscious social coordination techniques is not as bad as it might seem. Coordinating with others need not involve parroting opinions you don't share or nefariously attempting to have people do things against their wishes. Effective social coordination is a natural component of social life, and it often can increase efficiency and productivity. So not only do you look better, but you perform better as well. And what's not to like about that?