Contributed Column

The Manager's Corner

Gravitas: What it is and why it matters

Consider the following: A professional is being considered for promotion in his firm. He is technically highly skilled and capable. However, when the partners are discussing his partnership potential, one remarks “He lacks gravitas. I’m not sure he has what it takes.”

What does that mean? What does this individual need to do?

Gravitas is sometimes defined as “dignity, gravity, solemnity of manner, substance, weightiness.” Defined this way, gravitas has a heavy, somber, and dark aspect. But when professionals think of gravitas, they often mean something different. They are referring to an elusive quality that enables people to instill confidence in others quickly, reliably, and appropriately.

It goes beyond technical competency, charm, charisma and intelligence. People with gravitas speak crisply and directly; make eye contact; have excellent workplace relationships; successfully lead teams; are funny or serious when appropriate. They have “the whole package.” It’s second nature and it’s genuine: One cannot be both disingenuous and have gravitas.

That said, I don’t think gravitas and solemnity always go hand in hand. For example, a lawyer with whom I work is cheerful, energetic, warm, and emotionally intelligent. She laughs frequently, can be silly, and interacts easily. Everyone enjoys working with her. Nevertheless, she is the most highly respected and influential lawyer in the firm and has a powerful “slipstream” into which others are pulled. She’s a real leader and no one questions her importance to the firm. She has gravitas in spades.

Consider the issue of gender and gravitas. Men are often assumed to have gravitas, whereas women may be assumed to lack it. Such assumptions can undermine women in the workplace. However, gravitas is a human characteristic that goes beyond gender. It may present somewhat differently in men and women, but it’s equally important and real for both.

So how do you have gravitas? I think it has to do with consistently knowing and being yourself, while tailoring the way you present appropriately. Tailoring yourself to situations requires that you be internally consistent, but also highly attuned to the reactions of others. You need to be firmly personally grounded, but also standing outside yourself observing the situation critically, objectively, and accurately. It’s a subtle dance that requires some skill.

Gravitas matters because it differentiates adequate performers from real stars. It becomes more important the older one gets, particularly in a tough economy. Age can work against you in the workplace, except when it’s coupled with gravitas. Then it’s a winning combination.

Do you have this elusive quality? It’s not the sort of thing people typically tell you. There are subtle clues you can pick up by watching the reactions of others. In a group, do people stop and listen when you speak? Are your ideas commented upon and utilized by the group? Are you offered leadership roles? Do people seek out your advice about thorny issues in the workplace and even sometimes heed it? Do you feel comfortable within your own skin? These are all good indicators of having gravitas.

Some people naturally have gravitas. Others successfully cultivate it. Doing so requires some consistent attention and focus. The first step is to understand what gravitas means to you and to create an intention to manage yourself accordingly. Reflect on what works for you and what doesn’t. Stick with the former and jettison the latter. When you begin to notice positive changes in the ways others respond to you, you’ll know you’re on to something. After a while, consider asking other professionals whose judgment you trust for some feedback. Practice makes perfect. Don’t doubt it for a minute. •

Emily Morrow (www.emilymorrow.com) of Shelburne, provides tailored consulting services to business owners, professional practice firms, executives and HR personnel.

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