Bad news. After all the effort you have put into becoming the perfect “low- profile” employee, who nobody knows or notices, it turns out the people you see getting ahead are the ones you see. Period.
It’s true. While hiding behind a copy of The Wall Street Journal, I came across a Sue Shellenbarger article titled, “Is the Boss Looking at You? You’d Better Hope So.” According to the “Work & Family” columnist, “If the boss looks at you longer than at your co-workers, it may be a sign that your star is rising.” (It may also be a sign you forgot to button your blouse or zip your fly, but why be negative?)
Citing scientific studies from Image and Vision Computing and the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, Shellenbarger reports, “High-status people receive more visual attention from their conversation partners,” but “people who are seen lacking in influence, get less eye contact from influential participants in meetings.”
This is not a pretty picture. While the important people are busy drinking deeply from each other’s eyes, unimportant drones like thee and I are left to stare at the donut box. This is an advantage when it comes to nailing the last custard-filled cruller, but less of one when it comes to nailing a big fat promotion, or the raise that accompanies it.
If you feel you are being underscrutinized, it may be time to stop gazing at your navel and start staring at the alpha males and females in your line of sight. The best venue for a stare fest is a meeting.
“The most dominant person in a small group spends more time speaking than others,” Shellenbarger notes, “and looks longer at others when speaking.” Even if you do not have the floor, there is nothing to stop you from walking up to Mr. and Ms. Big, affixing your nose to their noses, and staring up a storm.
Your superiors will think either you are an especially powerful human being, trying to hypnotize them or have gone completely cuckoo. Regardless of what they think, you will get noticed.
Once you do establish eye contact, don’t make the mistake of holding that laser gaze too long. Consultant Ben Decker says, “Holding eye contact for more than 10 seconds can seem aggressive, empty or unauthentic.” It can also seem pretty creepy, but that could work to your advantage if in your company, creepy people always rise to the top.
Researchers also found that “high-status women use even more eye contact than men to establish their dominance during meetings,” if you think staring down your colleagues is a strategy more suitable to a macho movie star in a high-stakes showdown. You need to take this into consideration if you’ve been thinking that the lovely, high-status women in your office have been starring at you because you are so attractive and irresistible. They’re not trying to seduce you. They’re trying to dominate you. (And, if I know you, probably succeeding.)
Shellenbarger is really into this eyeball business, because eyeballing was also the subject of a second column, “Just Look Me in the Eye Already.” In this piece, she states that the average adult in the average conversation makes eye contact between 30 and 60 percent of the time they are speaking. The rest of the time, they are looking at their cellphones, their shoes or simply staring off into space. According to Quantified Impressions, a communication analytics company, people should be making eye contact 60 to 70 percent of the time “to create a sense of emotional connection.”
Of course, if an emotional connection to your co-workers and your managers is the last thing in the world you want, continue to operate under the radar. You may not be able to see anyone when crouched under your desk, but nobody can see you either.
On the other hand, if your goal is to attract attention, you certainly don’t have to become a more fascinating person — as if that were possible. Coming to work wearing a big, red clown nose will certainly turn eyeballs in your direction. Shaving your head can also be an attention-getter, or if you are already bald, a nice polyester mullet wig will certainly make you the apple of your manager’s eye.
You’ll be a creepy, rotten apple, of course, but that’s a role you play so very well.
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, Calif. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at firstname.lastname@example.org.