Help! My boss told me I ‘need to have more gravitas’ – what can I do?

Oh dear. Sorry to hear that. It’s going to be OK; you’re not the first, nor will you be the last person to fail the g-test. And like all of us who preceded you, right now you’re probably wondering what gravitas is – let alone how to get it. So first, a definition from ‘Gravitas is seriousness and dignity’.  Next, let’s try to clarify your manager’s expectations. Then we can identify some steps to take.

It would probably imprudent to ask your boss, “What on earth does that mean?” and “Why do I need it?” But my hunch is they expect you to ‘just know’ what gravitas means to them. I’m willing to bet they may also require people to ‘be more statesmanlike’, ‘authoritative’ and ‘consultative’. It’s my view that this says far more about your manager than it says about you. They may even think they’ve given you a clear steer. Which, of course, they haven’t.

As with all such damning twaddle, the recipient knows that mistress/master is displeased. But that’s it. No idea what has fallen short, and even less idea how to improve. It’s possible you have a boss who’s inept at feedback.

Side note: we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all in certain cultures. I’ve found people in The Netherlands and some Scandinavian countries to be breath-takingly frank and forthright. We can learn a lot from them.

You need to ask your manager some clear questions. Try a few of these for size:

  • “Can I ask what gave you that impression?”
  • “Please can you give me an example of what I did?”
  • “What have or haven’t I done that leads you to say I need more gravitas?”

What you’re after here are behaviours. That means verbs, not adjectives*. Your boss may not have ready answers. They may even be taken aback that you’re questioning them. You’ll need to persist, as their first response could be another litany of adjective-laden nonsense. Stay firm: you’re helping your boss do what they should have done earlier – give you clear feedback. It may be necessary to challenge them further:

  • “I hear that you’re not happy, yet I need more to on if I’m going to be able to address this.”
  • “Please be more specific: what did I do wrong?”

For example, you may have (verbs in bold):
Looked at your slides throughout your presentation
Rebutted colleagues’ suggestions
Hesitated when the client asked questions
Used inappropriate language

Be sure to get specific examples in each case. Brace yourself. Way back when I failed the g-test, the list of offences really stung. Another manager from whom I sought advice at the time interpreted this as ‘grow up’, which was much more helpful, if not pleasant to hear.

You can now ask them for some pointers about what to do instead:

  • “How will you know I’ve got gravitas?” (resist with all your strength the temptation to add sarcastic emphasis to the g-word)
  • “What will I be doing differently?”

If they’re still floundering, an alternative strategy is to direct their attention elsewhere:

  • “Who’s really got gravitas round here?”
  • “What’s their secret sauce – how do they do gravitas?”
  • “Who else should I study?”

What you need to end up with are clear behavioural steps you can take. These new behaviours will be apparent to your boss and colleagues. For example, you will:

  • Rehearse your presentation so that you can focus on communicating with your audience
  • Listen to colleagues’ suggestions, probe to clarify and thank them for their help.
  • Prepare for likely questions and come up with answers ahead of the meeting, so that you can respond
  • Moderate your language, keep it clean, clear and respectful.

Final tip for now: watch your body language. Taking practical actions will only get you so far if your body language lacks an air of authority. If you can, have a colleague film you on your smartphone as you deliver a presentation (if this won’t work for you in a group, just try it 1:1). Watch it back and consider how your posture, gestures and voice may be interpreted by your audience. For more ideas, I highly recommend Amy Cuddy’s TED talk.

*Note: I’m not entirely anti-adjectives. They’ve worked pretty well for Shakespeare after all. In a workplace performance setting they risk labelling people in ways that aren’t helpful. People need to know what behaviour they need to demonstrate more/less so that they can take action. If you’re British, being this direct and specific can feel weird at first. If you’re not British, please feel free to laugh at our inability to understand the grammar of our own language.

You may find this post useful: ‘7 tips for managing your boss’

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’.


Image credit: depositphotos


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