Picture this scenario: you are hunched over your desk, working furiously to meet a deadline, when a co-worker walks by and smiles at you. Do you smile back or do you keep your expression passive and return to your work? The answer depends largely on status and authority.
Our reaction to people we view as authority figures is what scientists call the "boss effect." The theory is this: in general, we offer or withhold a smile based on power, rank, and authority, meaning that we are more likely to smile at our bosses over subordinates.
If you believe yourself to be in a position of leadership over a co-worker, you will probably withhold your smile, widening the gap. If you believe your co-worker outranks you, you are likely to smile and mirror every facial expression he or she makes.
Here's the kicker, though. We have no idea we do this. Our facial responses to other people are largely involuntary. Mostly it depends on how much power we feel we have. The highly confident worker is more likely to withhold a smile. The worker with low confidence, who feels he or she has little to no authority, is more likely to smile at everyone.
So the next time a co-worker smiles at you, check yourself. Did you immediately smile back or did you find yourself blanking your expression? The answer might give you more insight into office politics than you think.
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