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The power of powerless speech

Are there situations where warmth is more important than perceived competence for you to gain power and prestige?

Despite suggestions by the popular press that assertive, powerful speech is needed to seem competent and thus gain status and leadership within a group or company, this is not always true.

How warm a person seems to be trumps how competent they are perceived to be in some situations, according to new research from Alison Fragale, a professor of organizational behavior at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

In her research, Fragale studied what she describes as “powerless speech,” which has commonly been believed to make a person seem tentative and uncertain and less likely to be given a promotion or other status. Powerless speech is characterized by:

  • Hesitation like “Well” or “Um”
  • Tag questions like “Don’t you think?”
  • Hedges like “Sort of” or “Maybe”
  • Disclaimers like “This may be a bad idea, but … “
  • Formal addresses like “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am”

In situations where people are expected to work in a team, speech with these “powerless” characteristics is much more effective than a more assertive way of speaking. People who spoke less assertively in these situations were perceived as more likely to be promoted and to gain status and power, Fragale found.

“When people hear someone who is very confident and certain in the way that they speak, others think of that person as really dominant and ambitious and assertive,” she says. “But they also think of that person as less warm, less collaborative and less cooperative. In groups that require a lot of team work, team members are looking for people who have good team skills, who care about other people. Those personality attributes are more important than how dominant or ambitious you are.”

Powerful speech, which does not include hedges, tag questions of disclaimers, works very well for getting ahead and gaining status and power when the task or group is very independent and people are expected to be able to work on their own, Fragale noted.

Thus, be aware that people make inferences about you by the way that you speak. And tailor your speech to the dynamics of the task, Fragale advises.

“The subtle communicative behaviors do matter,” she says. “People make inferences about how well you’re likely to do at the task at hand, and their belief about how good a job you will do is what drives their decisions about how much status you should have.

To advance your career, modify your communication style to the characteristics that are demanded in a particular group or organization.