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Leadership Advice: Strike a Pose

Want to become an effective leader? Watch the way you sit, stand, and posture, says a Harvard B-School professor.

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We know how leaders are supposed to look. They stand straight and tall. They are physically expansive, radiating confidence and power. In fact, taking on such physical attributes can actually make people feel more leader-ish, says Amy Cuddy, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. Cuddy and two co-researchers are studying "power posing"--an exercise for charisma-hungry leaders who want not only to appear more confident but also to be that way. She spoke with editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan about mastering the physical side of leadership.

What led to your interest in the relationship between posture and power?

There's often a gender grade gap in the M.B.A. classroom in the sense that men appear to outperform women. And one thing I noticed is that the women don't sit the same way as the men. They're much more likely to have their legs crossed and their ankles wrapped. The men are more likely to sit with their legs spread, their shoulders open, arms sometimes draped around the chair next to them. When they want to get in there, they lean forward and stick up their hands. We've known for a long time that the postures assumed by many of the men are associated with power.

So your posture reflects how powerful you feel.

I wondered what would happen if you forced students to change their posture. Would that lead them to participate more? Can you fake it until you make it? There's evidence from social psychology and research on facial expressions that suggests it's possible. When you force people to smile and to contract the muscles in the face that are involved with smiling, it makes them happier. That's called the facial feedback hypothesis. But what happens below the neck conveys a lot of information, too.

Is there a known physiological basis for that?

We looked at testosterone, the hormone associated with dominance, and cortisol, a hormone that is released in response to stress. In primatology, the belief is that individuals born with the highest testosterone become the alphas. But it's also true that if an individual is forced to take over the alpha role, within a few days, his testosterone has gone up, and his cortisol has gone down. And if you get pushed to the bottom of the hierarchy, your testosterone goes down, and your cortisol goes up. That makes you much less disease resistant and more likely to get picked off.

Some social psychologists at the University of Texas have found that the most effective leaders have both high testosterone and low cortisol. You don't want high-testosterone, high-cortisol leaders. That person is going to be defensive and very reactive to stressful decisions. He or she will be less likely to make good decisions.

How did you test your hypothesis?

We brought people into the lab and had them spit into a little vial to get baseline testosterone and cortisol levels. Then some of them would do high-power poses for two minutes and some would do low-power poses for two minutes. Then we gave them $2 and the chance to roll a die and win $4. And we had them answer questions about how powerful they felt. After 15 to 17 minutes, we'd take a second saliva sample.

And the results were?

The high-power poses caused a decrease in cortisol of about 25 percent and an increase in testosterone of about 19 percent. The low-power poses increased cortisol about 17 percent and decreased testosterone about 10 percent. On the gambling task, 86 percent of the high-power posers chose to take the risk, compared with 60 percent of the low-power posers.

Was it the same for men and women?

Both showed the same pattern of changes.

Is there a minimum amount of time people need to power pose in order for it to take?

We advise people to do this before they go into a situation where they need to appear confident. Normally, what people do before they give a speech or go into a sales meeting is sit in a chair, hunching over their notes or their iPhone. That's the opposite of what you should be doing. You're making yourself tiny. Instead, you should be walking around the hallway, putting your arms up. Sit at your desk and put your feet up on it. Stand on your tiptoes with your hands in the air. When you go into a sales meeting, you want to be as squared off and tall as you naturally can be. If you're sitting down, you might consider not crossing your legs. If the chair has arms, rest your arms on those arms. That will help prevent you from crossing your arms or wrapping them around your torso.

How long does the effect of power posing last? Can it get you through a sales meeting? A morning? A whole day?

That is an empirical question we will be trying to unravel. At this point, we can say pretty comfortably that the initial effects seem to last 15 or 30 minutes. I think the more interesting question is whether or how it becomes self-reinforcing. You pose powerfully; you perform better; you feel more confident and powerful; then you perform even better. At the same time, people respond to that confidence and performance boost and give you feedback that further elevates your feelings of confidence and power.

Are the effects of power posing cumulative? In other words, the more regularly you do it, the longer the effect lasts or the easier it is to achieve? Does there come a point, if you maintain the poses long enough, that testosterone and cortisol simply assume the optimal levels?

I'm not the best person to answer that, because I'm not an endocrinologist. But I don't think it's likely that your hormone levels are going to change permanently. What might be more likely is that once you learn that feeling, you can achieve it mentally without doing the poses. It would be interesting to answer the question: Can you close your eyes and picture yourself in one of those postures and get the same effect?

How important is the physical sensation of confidence or power to being a good leader?

It gets into this idea of embodiment. For example, people who hold a warm cup behave more warmly. When you hold a cold cup, you behave more coldly. That was in a paper published in Science a few years ago--it's good science. So feeling yourself in a position of power and confidence can give rise to behaviors that reflect that. You fake it until you make it.

What is the effect of power poses on risk tolerance? Is there a concern that people might experience irrational exuberance postposturing and make unwise decisions as a result?

It does increase risk tolerance. But for the average person, it's still well within the normal range. Only a small, pathological percentage of the population might be pushed over the edge.

I suppose that people naturally have different levels of testosterone and cortisol. Is that what underlies the argument that some people are born leaders?

It may be partly that.

Is this something that shouldbe taught in leadership development programs?

It should be part of leadership development. But the people who could benefit the most are not necessarily the people who end up in an M.B.A. classroom. It's the people who are powerless and suffering because of it. Two days ago, someone invited me to talk at a women's shelter about this. That's my greater hope.

If a leader's problem is the opposite of a lack of confidence--if he or she is arrogant and impatient and tends to steamroll people--can assuming postures of submission help?

I'm sure it could. But how would you convince someone like that to actually do it?

What Does Dominance Look Like?

We asked Amy Cuddy to describe four classic power poses:

  • The Performer: Mick Jagger --"This is a classic expression of feeling powerful in the moment-it causes you to physically expand."
  • The CEO: Oprah Winfrey--"The body language naturally projects dominance. It's unusual to see a woman in this position."
  • The Classic: Wonder Woman--"She's really opening up. The feet spread, the hands on the hips. She's taking up space."
  • The Loomer: Lyndon Johnson--"Johnson was 6'4", and he used his stature very thoughtfully-to both intimidate and seduce."
IMAGE: iStock
Last updated: May 1, 2012

LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.
@LeighEBuchanan




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