The ‘Rock Star’ Prof At The Center Of The Stanford GSB Storm

Stanford Graduate School of Business dean Garth Saloner

Stanford Graduate School of Business dean Garth Saloner


In any case, Gruenfeld has built an influential and rewarding brand from her research and teaching. Her Acting With Power leadership methodology is the focus of her many school presentations, webinars, videos, and at least one commercial product, a 53-minute video course for $19.95 at e-learning website She has also put her expertise and theatrical skill into the service of, a group founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to offer women “inspiration and support.” Gruenfeld sits on the board. In a LeanIn video produced in conjunction with the GSB and Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Gruenfeld presents key elements of “Acting With Power.”

In the talk, she focuses on body language, and the need to understand when you’ll gain impact and influence by “playing high” for dominance, and when you need to “play low” to show you know your place. “It’s the balance between playing high and playing low that I think makes most managers effective, and this may be especially important for women,” Gruenfeld says in the video. 

When playing high, “You need to be able to show up authoritative,” Gruenfeld says. “Being authoritative means showing up and letting people know that you’re in charge. You’re going to be closing yourself off a little bit to other people, you’re privileging your knowledge and experience over and above the knowledge and experience of other people. You’re becoming more directive and more concerned with controlling other people’s behavior than with taking direction from others.”


Practically speaking, showing up “authoritative” means behaving like a jerk, Gruenfeld’s talk suggests. And women need to give themselves “permission” to deploy the “playing high” tactics when the job requires it.

“When walking you assume others will move out of your path, taking up maximum space and allowing your body and your gestures to flow into the space of other people,” she says. Other ways to assert dominance include “keeping your head perfectly still while talking,” speaking in complete sentences, and holding eye contact “a little longer than normal,” she says. “You stare someone down when you’re addressing them. You don’t let them out from under your gaze. They know you’re serious. 

“But when they’re addressing you,” Gruenfeld advises, pulling her phone from a back pocket for theatrical effect and checking the screen, “you’re free to look around, you’ve got other things on your mind, other people you need to talk to… You don’t check other people’s eyes for any reaction to what you said, and you have no visible reaction to what other people say either. You could interrupt before you know what you’re going to say.”

But beware the perils of overstepping, Gruenfeld warns. Playing high can be “really dangerous” if you play higher than your position allows, Gruenfeld warns. “You play high to reinforce your actual rank, or in a competitive situation when status is up for grabs.”


While an open, expansive body language is necessary for playing high, playing low involves shrinking your presence, possibly turning the toes inward, and often speaking in incomplete sentences, Gruenfeld says.

Although a person in an authority position can sometimes gain status by playing low with subordinates to develop rapport or lift someone up, playing low prevails mostly among lower-ranking members of organizations, she says. “You see a lot more smiling from the low-ranking members and it’s not because things are better at the bottom. People in the lower ranks are smiling because it’s their job to make sure that the people above them are never uncomfortable… You get this kind of a fake, apologetic smile. It’s a badge of appeasement.

“For a low-ranking person it’s really important that the people above you know that you understand your position and you respect theirs.” Because females are socialized to play low, women in power must allow themselves to use the playing-high tools necessary for working in high-level roles, she says.

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