We normally associate leadership with a confident, assertive speaking style. But according to Alison Fragale at the University of North Carolina, when it comes to tasks or organisations that require a cooperative style of working, people look for leadership from those with doubt and hesitation in their voice.
Fifty-four participants read one of two descriptions of a company – one version emphasised that the company prized the ability to work independently; by contrast, the other stressed the need for staff to work cooperatively. The participants then read one of two versions of a transcript of a telephone call made by an employee, ‘Richard’, at that company. In one version he spoke with confidence and without hesitation (e.g. “I know. I need the results of the Xerox project to help guide us. Why haven’t we received them yet?”); in the other version he spoke with hesitation and qualification (“I know. I’m not really sure, but I think we really need the results of the Xerox project to help guide us. I totally don’t want to be a pain or anything, but do you know why haven’t we received them yet?”).
As you might expect, participants who read that the company valued people’s ability to work alone, were more likely to recommend Richard for a high status promotion if they’d read the telephone transcript in which he had spoken assertively and without hesitation. More surprisingly, among the participants who read that the company cherished cooperation among staff, those who read the transcript in which Richard spoke with doubt and hesitation were more likely to recommend him for promotion than were the participants who read the transcript in which he was assertive and confident. The explanation for this probably lies in the fact the participants who read the ‘hesitant’ transcript rated Richard as more likeable and tolerant than the participants who read the ‘confident’ transcript.
Fragale concluded that whereas many people have argued for a language of success – “an assertive manner of speaking that has been shown to improve an individual’s status position” – the current findings* suggest this may be an oversimplification, and in fact “multiple languages may lead to status attainment”, depending on the context.
Fragale, A.R. (2006). The power of powerless speech: The effects of speech style and task interdependence on status conferral (click for pdf). Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 101, 243-261.
*Fragale performed another experiment (not described here) that also supported her claims.