Performing Power

“The impact of a leader’s ability to perform with power is huge,” says Melissa Jones Briggs. “If leaders have limited range, and if they are unable to finely calibrate their behavior, it has a negative impact on team morale, team outcome, and the overall health of the business.”

Joanna Sinclair, 17.10.2018

Jones Briggs is a lecturer in Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. She specializes in exploring the relationship of power, authority and status, and how nonverbal communication can help achieve leadership goals.

Jones Briggs pairs emerging research in social sciences with tools and techniques from performing arts to help executives as they navigate complex power dynamics in the workplace. In summer 2019 she will be teaching in the “Lead networks, lead in networks” module of Aalto EE’s Healthy Boss program.

“The participants in this program are looking for a personal transformation, which is at the heart of organizational change in their company,” Jones Briggs remarks.

“In the module of the Healthy Boss program that I will be teaching, we will explore dimensions of performing power. The mechanics of the executives’ body, voice, mind and mindset in communication, style and skill,” she explains.

Elevating executive presence

Jones Briggs reminds that we are all continually asserting or undermining our own power.

“Everyone has an instinctual feeling that arises when they think about power. We hate people who use power who we feel don’t deserve it; or who use it in ways that hurt other people. Yet power can be a potent tool for good,” she notes.

“Having power allows you to create positive change. It allows you to helpfully influence teams and culture within an organization. As an educator, my work focuses on supporting leaders in using their power skillfully and to the best advantage of the organization,” she adds.

Theatre and leadership have a number of common denominators relating to performance.”

In her teaching, Jones Briggs utilizes techniques from theatre arts to help leaders address their issues around power, authority and status. With her help, leaders are able to elevate their executive presence and authority through a wider, authentic range of expression.

“Theatre and leadership have a number of common denominators relating to performance – not as in performance reviews – but as in how we show up, and how leaders are highly visible and scrutinized on a daily basis,” she states.

“Senior executives have the responsibility, and the right, to understand all the factors at play when others form perceptions of their power. Many of these factors are physical, vocal, and mindset behavioral choices that they are making to influence others,” she says.

A wide range of available roles in leadership

We all learn default behavioral choices early on in our lives and careers. Jones Briggs assures that although we may feel like we are stuck with ideas of who we are and how we fit into the world, there is no need to play the same role over and over again.

“We learn behavior because we are rewarded for it, because it keeps us safe – and sometimes we can lose sight of all the other roles available to us. We can learn a great deal from the performance arts in our leadership, by growing into new roles. There is a wide range of available roles in leadership. It is a leader’s responsibility to step in, take the stage, and take on new, more effective roles,” she affirms.

Authenticity is critical in learning how to navigate interpersonal dynamics.”

Jones Briggs emphasizes that she does not teach leaders how to fake a role. Authenticity is critical in learning how to navigate interpersonal dynamics.

“The focus is always on the other person, team, or stakeholder that you are looking to influence,” Jones Briggs says.

“To drive the leaders’ behavior change and growth, we explore the crafts of performance arts and help leaders step into the leadership role that is required of them. To accomplish this, leaders often need a broader range of physical and vocal tools than what they are accustomed to using,” she asserts.

Exploring non-verbal clues with peers

Jones Briggs’ teaching is highly interactive. She has executives on their feet, connecting with each other in dyads, triads, and in small and large groups. Together, they explore how their behavior is perceived by others. It is not uncommon for leaders to find that they had no idea how their non-verbal clues impact the people they interact with.

“Sometimes we don’t even know we have socialized nonverbal behaviors. A typical – and very American – example is smiling all the time. Using a very limited vocal range is another behavior unintentionally used by leaders. Nonverbal behavioral choices may be different for everyone in a room, and certainly differ a great deal across cultures,” she says.

Nonverbal behavioral choices may be different for everyone in a room.”

Jones Briggs helps leaders raise awareness of the signals that their behavior is sending, and how it may support or undermine the objectives at hand.

“After identifying non-verbal cues participants are prone to, we explore alternative behaviors and practice them in low-stake situations, in the safety of a classroom within a cohort of trusted peers,” she depicts.

In exercises led by Jones Briggs, executives often explore a specific challenge, such as a demanding meeting or negotiation. With the help of real-world scenarios, they try out various techniques around power, status, and authorities.

“This helps leaders find the limit of their range, and then grow beyond those limits by stepping outside of their comfort zone and trying out new ways of using their voice and body,” she describes.

Leadership mirrors theatre in many ways

Jones Briggs points out that many of the challenges of performing power in leadership mirror challenges in performing arts. Staying focused on the other person, the team and organization is a good example. The often repetitive nature of the work, the growing momentum of the work, and the need to calibrate the way you show up, are also things both theatre and leadership have in common.

To influence people you must be able to create true reciprocal relationships within the hierarchy.”

“As you grow in your leadership role, how you do what you do, is just as important as what you do. To influence people you must be able to create true reciprocal relationships within the hierarchy,” she underlines.

“When leaders broaden their repertoire of physical, vocal and emotional tools, they can perform more effectively within networks and hierarchies, and enhance their impact and connection in a leadership context,” she adds.

“In the Healthy Boss program, we offer executives a grounding effect in their personal relationship to power and how that shows up in their communication style. We help executives identify their default comfort zones, and grow their range so they can show up more effectively to influence and connect with others, to create healthy relationships, healthy teams and healthy cultures,” Jones Briggs concludes.

Alongside lecturing at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, Melissa Jones Briggs works as an Executive Coach and Principal Consultant at People Rocket, a management design firm where she designs, directs & deploys global leadership and inclusion programs for organizations like Apple, Autodesk, Cisco, eBay, Intel, Lyft, Mozilla, Twitter, and Ubisoft. An honors graduate of Wake Forest University, Jones Briggs also studied at the Coaches Training Institute in San Francisco, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and the Actor’s Center Conservatory in New York. Read more about Aalto Healthy Boss Program.

Currently reading: Aalto Leaders' Insight: Performing Power