Q: Can a person communicate through his posture? What am I saying by how I stand? Also, I’ve heard the phrase, “It’s not just what you wear but how you wear it.” Is that true?
A: Yes, people communicate through their posture. In business, posture can communicate power, reduce stress, and increase risk-taking.
Everywhere in the animal kingdom, an animal’s posture or stance is a way of communicating.
- When cats are threatened, they freeze and arch their backs (making them appear larger).
- Chimpanzees display power through holding their breath and bulging out their chests.
- Male peacocks fan out their tails in search of a mate.
- Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that humans communicate power through expansive, open postures.
STUDY 1: In a study conducted by researchers at Columbia and Harvard in 2010 (link: https://www0.gsb.columbia.edu/mygsb/faculty/research/pubfiles/4679/power.poses_.PS_.2010.pdf), the effect of expansive, powerful postures was examined.
- A group of participants were gathered and hooked up to physiological recording gear, and saliva samples were taken.
Saliva samples can be used to measure cortisol (which is related to physiological stress) and testosterone (related to feeling powerful).
- Then, the participants were literally, physically put into high- or low-power poses for 2 minutes each.
High power postures indicate that a person is “expanded,” unconcerned with things (people who have the upper hand in a negotiation can appear like they don’t have a care in the world), or aggressive (leaning in against a table).
Low power positions are closed in, giving the impression that a person is vulnerable or frightened.
After participants were put into those poses, their physiological changes were recorded, another saliva sample was taken, and the participants took a few psychological measures of risk-taking and feelings of power.
- Placing participants in HIGH POWER poses resulted in:
Decreased cortisol (i.e. stress levels went down)
Increased focus on rewards and more risk-taking
Feelings of being “powerful” and “in-charge”
- Placing participants in LOW POWER poses resulted in:
Increased cortisol (i.e. stress levels went up)
Increased focus on risk and less risk-taking
Lower feelings of power
Does this effect translate to actual business success? Can you really affect your business performance just by standing a certain way?
STUDY 2: In a working paper released in 2012 (link: https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/9547823/13-027.pdf?sequence=1), the same authors expanded the previous study by examining whether “power poses” could influence actual business performance.
- 61 participants were told to stand or sit in either high-power “power poses” or low-power poses.
- Then, participants were asked to imagine that they were about to interview for their dream job and prepare a 5-minute speech talking about their strengths, qualifications, and why they should be chosen for the job.
- Participants were told to stay in the physical poses while they prepared.
- Participants then gave the speech in a natural stance (NOT in a high- or low-power pose)
- After they gave the speech, participants filled out surveys that measure feelings of power (how dominant, in control, and powerful they felt).
- Afterward, the speeches were rated by trained coders who were unaware of the hypothesis of the study. The speeches were rated on overall performance and hireability of the speaker, as well as on speech quality and presentation quality.
- Those placed in “high power” physical poses:
Felt more powerful.
Were rated significantly higher on overall performance and hireability.
Coders felt that the “high power” participants had better presentation quality, and this was found to statistically explain the better overall performance in their speeches.
- This is very strong evidence that you can alter your feelings of power, stress, and fear of risk by just putting your physical body in a certain posture.
- It should be pretty intuitive to say that our physical stances can communicate power or aggression, but it might be a little surprising to know that feeling more powerful also makes people feel less stressed!
Powerful people are more in control of themselves and their environment.
If you’ve ever heard (or thought): “I don’t want to be a leader. I don’t want to take on more responsibility – it would all just make me more stressed out.”
This might not be true! More leadership and power could actually reduce stress. But are you willing to make that leap?
Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363-1368.
Cuddy, A. J. C., Wilmuth, C. A., & Carney, D. R. (2012). The benefit of power posing before a high-stakes social evaluation. Harvard Business School Working Paper, 13-027.