Speak to the person, not to the title

Last year I ran a presentation skills workshop and one of the things I began to notice was that a serious cause of anxiety in the workplace is the issue of ‘status’. Status presents through many channels in society, but in the workplace the existence of an organisational hierarchy makes status an explicit thing.

And it makes us nervous.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “I’m presenting to the CEO of corporation X and I’m extremely nervous – what if I mess it up?” Or “She is such a high powered executive – what if she thinks this is a waste of time?”

When these questions are asked I can tell that the problems have already begun. The focus is on the title of the person, rather than the person themselves. The image of a CEO or senior exec as someone who is ruthless, strong, impatient, successful and hard to please becomes a mind barrier. However, behind the titles are very real people.

People are much easier to talk to than scary mental caricatures of a CEO, a CIO, or a director of the board or the ‘manager’.

When you think of the person, not their title, think of someone who has concerns and frustrations, desires and preferences just like you do. This is a great way to reduce the tension you are creating as your own obstacle. The ominous cloud of status dissipates and behind it you see someone who is approachable. It is extremely hard to present to someone that you see as inaccessibly superior to you, so the trick is to remove this hindering common mental sabotage and replace it with something that gives you the confidence to be your best.

When you can relate to someone of authority as a real person you can start to find ways to connect. They will be time pressured, and have an extensive list of responsibilities – easy to imagine. Whatever your approach, it will be infinitely easier if you discover the human elements and build a relationship.

Some managers and senior executives thrive on this dynamic

It would be naïve to suggest that you can completely ignore the social norms that have developed around status, particularly in organisations that emphasise the hierarchy. There will always be cultural sensitivities that you have to observe, whether you’re heading overseas to pitch a product or going upstairs to talk to the executive management team.

More so, some managers will take great pleasure in punishing those who don’t observe the rules and ‘know their place’.

The most damaging thing you can do to yourself in this sort of environment is to buy into a culture that promotes disrespect between levels of the organisation, and disrespect to you for being in a ‘lesser position’. You need to constantly ask yourself “is it okay for someone to treat me this way?” If the answer is ‘no’ a bit too frequently, you may need to consider a career shift.

True leaders remove this dynamic

Most of the CEOs I know are extremely busy people with a lot of focus and passion, who are time poor. They get to the top by being intelligent, capable and they are usually very sociable – great at building relationships. They want respect, but they don’t need and don’t usually want to be treated like royalty!

They don’t want to wade through unnecessary ‘apologetic’ or longwinded unassertive possibilities – they just want to get to the point. So feel good about how you approach people, not their positions.

Eve Ash, psychologist and CEO of Seven Dimensions, has produced over 500 business films, including some hilarious comedy films (www.7d-tv.com) and is a widely acclaimed public speaker (www.eveash.com).

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