Most organizations are hierarchical and consist of a lineup of individuals, some of whom are more powerful and some less.
Managers, CEOs, and leaders occupy powerful roles since it is they who control promotions, salaries, and the hiring and firing of others. Subordinates possess less powerful roles. This is true in many of our other relationships and interactions as well—some people feel more powerful than others.
Studies have shown that there are certain behaviors and cognitions that are activated when a person feels powerful—or even when he or she just recalls feeling powerful. In the research, people in powerful roles, or those who recalled the experience of power, behaved and thought differently. They took more frequent action, made first offers in negotiations, took more risks, and even thought more abstractly.
However, power can originate from and be expressed through another source—bodily postures.
Both animals and humans exhibit powerful and powerless postures by either taking up more space or taking up as little space as possible. The puffer fish pumps water into its stomach and triples in size when defending itself against predators. The jay bird positions itself in a manner that greatly enlarges its body when defending its nest, with feathers erect, wings or tail spread out slightly (or fully in more threatening situations), and bill open. Chimpanzees who wish to convey dominance raise their arms, push out their chests and stand up in order to appear larger; they sway their limbs, and jump up and down repeatedly. Upon encountering a dominant chimpanzee, submissive chimps lower their bodies, constrict themselves, take up less space, and make themselves appear smaller and nonthreatening so as not to provoke an attack.
This is also true for humans.
Powerful individuals stand up, spread their legs and arms outward, and expand in space. A submissive person might sit with head bowed, hands held close to the body, and legs together. Indeed, several studies have shown that people who stand or sit in powerful poses and expand in space are perceived by others as being more powerful.
Dana Carney and Andy Yap of Columbia University and Amy Cuddy from Harvard University examined whether powerful postures influenced how powerful we ourselves feel. They divided subjects into two groups—a “power” pose group (whose participants were asked to stand and later sit with their hands spread out on the table and legs apart), and a "low-power" group (whose participants were asked to be seated and later stand with their hands wrapped around their bodies or between their knees, legs close together, limbs closed). Those who displayed high-power poses reported feeling more powerful, took more risks, and gambled more than those in the low power group. This difference was evidenced on a physiological level as well. Those who assumed powerful postures exhibited increased testosterone levels and a decreased level of cortisol. Testosterone positively correlates with dominant (i.e., powerful) behavior, while cortisol is a stress hormone.
So just standing in the appropriate expanded pose influences how powerful we feel and consequently how we behave while at the same time seems to reduce stress.
Recently a group of researchers from Northwestern and Stanford universities (Li Huang, Adam Galinsky, Deborah Gruenfeld and Lucia Guillory) found that postures actually influence our behavior more than our role. In several experiments, participants were assigned the role of managers or subordinates and were asked to pose in either an expansive or restricted posture. The results clearly showed that when people assumed powerful positions they took more action and thought more abstractly, irrespective of whether they were assigned a powerful or powerless role. What mattered was posture.
Taken together, these findings strongly suggest that powerful feelings and behaviors are embodied and grounded in our bodily postures. You don't necessarily need to be in a powerful role in order to feel powerful. Expanded postures will do the job. This is great news for anyone wishing to boost their confidence in an assortment of situations.
If you want to feel more confident at a job interview, on a first date, when joining a new group, or joining a difficult family meeting, just assume a powerful pose for a few minutes before entering the room—and use it while you’re interacting. Try to stretch your legs, place your arms on the table and take up some space. With this simple act you can change the way you feel about yourself as well as your consequent behavior and the way others perceive you.
For many more studies about the influence of our physical sensations on your behavior, decisions, and emotions, check out my book Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence (Atria 2014).