Winning the Game of Boardroom Chess

Entrepreneurs / 3rd July 2024

How subtle, seemingly innocuous actions can shift the balance of power in your favour

It is broadly understood that bold, expansive postures and gestures convey power and credibility. But how often have executives entered a meeting confident in achieving their goal, only to leave blindsided – unsure of how the power dynamics shifted in favour of an opposing viewpoint?

Most people assume that their actions are their own. However, our research would argue that it is the (often unconscious) responses to the behaviour of others that determine who dominates in any interaction. This builds on findings highlighted in an earlier study by Curtis LeBaron (a co-author of this piece), which examined real-life video recordings of United States police detectives interrogating murder suspect “Dave”. 

The research showed how seemingly minor physical actions by the detectives and their strategic use of the space and surrounding objects – including furniture, a light switch and a door – shifted the power dynamics. Dave, oblivious to the strategic interactions around him, fell from a position of parity to a passive player in the detectives’ game.

Using power moves in a corporate setting

These same tactics can be used in the boardroom. Countless studies show that power dynamics are inherent in organisations. Interactions within institutions, such as those between politicians in a parliamentary arena or a meeting room full of directors, regularly involve imbalances of power. This was noted by sociologists Paul Drew and John Heritage in their introduction to the book Talk at Work.

Intrigued by such power plays, we studied video recordings of the non-verbal communication that occurred during meetings of top management teams across Europe and North America over a 20-year period. This analysis was further supported by observing the behaviour of executives and MBA students during classroom simulations. 

We discovered that successful outcomes do not follow a linear process. Instead, they are the result of a dynamic interplay of moves and countermoves as individuals respond consciously or subconsciously to the actions of others. This is what sociologist Erving Goffman describes as “interaction order”. 

We do not gain more influence and arrive at successful outcomes simply by engaging in more assertive behaviour. Rather, the body language we choose to display needs to be dynamic and adaptable based on the reactions of our counterparts. Sometimes we engage in these behaviours unconsciously, but there are times when we can gain conscious control and use them strategically.

Whether a particular move is “good” or powerful also depends on the prior or subsequent moves of others. Like a game of chess, taking and keeping the advantage necessitates more than a single power move. It requires a series of strategic steps to defend, consolidate or counter a viewpoint, until one side emerges victorious.

Drawing from years of research and observations, we’ve identified four actions that can help executives take and maintain the lead in any situation. While some of these suggestions may appear obvious, many individuals don’t regularly put them into practice, or can even forget them in the heat of the moment.

1. Read the room

Identify the dynamics at play before entering a room. Anticipate your peers’ physical movements and consider your response. For instance, note who people are sitting next to. Are they allies? Is this a regular pattern? Recognise the unwritten rules that may exist and could lead to unexpected outcomes. As an example, leaning back in a chair is often seen as a sign of confidence. However, in some workplaces, particularly those with hierarchical cultures, it can suggest a lack of respect.

Remember that the environment and dynamics in a meeting room are constantly changing. It’s therefore important to continue to read the room and pay attention to the behaviour of both senior and junior members. Senior members may sway decisions because others simply comply, but junior members can reveal important information through their body language. 

One could look out for facial expressions that indicate agreement – usually marked by a genuine smile, also known as a Duchenne smile (i.e. smiling with both the eyes and the mouth) – or those that indicate disagreement like facial expressions of contempt (e.g. a lopsided curl of the lips or a sideways glance of the eyes). If the decision-making criteria involves a vote, you need to influence both groups.

Plan to be challenged and be ready to adjust your behaviour accordingly. If you find yourself taken by surprise or placed in a position of disadvantage by an opposing action, get up and move about. Circling the room, getting up to present and then sitting next to an ally to deliver a final message can capture attention and underline the strength of a coalition. 

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