Leadership Presence: Harnessing Our Personal Power
– Amy Cuddy
Notice your body posture right now as you’re reading this blog. Are you hunched over at your computer, shoulders turned in, head lowered close to the screen? Are your hands folded, are your legs crossed? If so, straighten your spine, push your shoulders back, lift your chin up, open your arms and drape them on your desk or at the sides or your chair. Or better yet, raise your arms in a V of triumph and throw your head back!
Notice anything different in how you feel?
It turns out that your body language has an immense impact on not only your physical health but also your emotional state, performance, and even tolerance for risk and ambiguity. In her highly acclaimed book, Presence, social psychologist Amy Cuddy delves into the research examining the connection between the mind and body when it comes to personal power, and the influence of personal power and “presence” over our behaviors.
What is Presence?
Cuddy defines presence as, “the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values, and potential.” She argues that presence is not a permanent state, rather a moment-by-moment experience that occurs when we feel personally powerful, when we feel most authentically ourselves. Presence allows us to manage even the most tense and challenging conditions, and leads not only to lower stress levels but to more effective decision making and accurate problem solving.
Presence is About the Authentic You
Numerous studies indicate that “self-affirmation” reduces anxiety and yields higher performance. You may be immediately thinking of Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live, who used a slew of “affirmations” to feel better but ultimately felt horrible about himself. Cuddy argues that in this context, self-affirmation refers to practices that connect people with their core values and beliefs that ground them in their truest sense of themselves. In one particular study with participants given very stressful and challenging tasks, one group performed better and had lower levels of cortisol, the hormone released when we experience stress. That group of participants was simply asked to reflect and write about their core values prior to the stressful situation. So by simply getting in touch with our personal core values, not even values related to the task at hand, we can lower our stress levels and allow ourselves to perform at higher levels.
Presence is About Personal Power
Cuddy talks about power not in terms of social or positional power over others, rather in terms of personal power, or control over one’s inner resources. When we feel a sense of personal power, we feel more confident, at ease, and safe. We are thus more likely to think clearly, to engage in rational decision making, and perform tasks accurately. Studies showed that priming participants by simply recalling a powerful or powerless experience or even looking at words like “control and authority” versus “obey and subordinate” impacts performance: those who were primed with powerful imagery or words made significantly fewer mistakes.
Be Authentic…but Fake It?
Cuddy argues that in order to achieve presence, especially during stressful conditions, we have to “fake it till we make it,” which seems counterintuitive considering her definition of presence hinges on authenticity. However, the “pose” is at the core of achieving presence moment to moment. Our body posture has a significant impact on our emotional state of mind and thus on our levels of personal power. Cuddy’s research shows that when individuals adopt physical positions that are often seen as powerful, typically positions in which the person expands to take up more space, spreading arms or legs, and raising the chest and chin, they not only report feeling more positive and powerful, their hormones indicate a significant physiological change. Individuals who held a power pose for even a minute or two have a 19 percent increase in testosterone and a 25 percent decrease in cortisol. Those who adopted low power poses, caving their chests and chins in, and slumping their shoulders, had a 10 percent decrease in testosterone and a 17 percent increase in cortisol.
So by simply holding a powerful or powerless position for a minute can either drastically increase or decrease one’s level of stress. Not only did the subjects feel different, they also performed differently in terms of how risk averse they were in their decision making and how well they performed on mental tasks.
Ok, So Really…How Can I Be Authentic?
Lately, it’s becoming a bit of a parlor trick for managers to tell their employees to adopt a power pose before a big presentation or meeting. Although it may seem goofy to some, the research time and again indicates that it does have a positive impact on how we show up. That’s not to say we should incessantly stand with our arms akimbo and throw our feet up on our desks, nor should we use power poses to dominate others’ space. Cuddy argues that the intention of power posing is to harness our own personal sense of power in order to be fully present. It’s not about doing a Wonder Woman stance in the bathroom mirror so much as it is about getting in tune with oneself. By taking a moment to pause, to reflect on what we admire about ourselves, what we value most, and what makes us belong where we are, we can shore up our inner strength to think, feel, and perform better.