Yang: Adopting Power Posture To Feel Powerful, Yet Power Saps Empathy…

Adopting Power Posture To Feel Powerful, Yet Power Saps Empathy…

“Fake it till you make it.” Whether we like “faking” or not, whether we believe this sentiment or not, and whether we want to adopt such “principle” or not, according to Amy Cuddy’s research, a powerful body language can help us grow our confidence, while also changing others’ perceptions of us.

Amy Cuddy is a professor at the Harvard Business School. Both her personal journey and research interests have led her to study the relationships between our nonverbal language, performance, and confidence (link below).  As an “audience,” we respond unfavorably to someone hunched over, wrapping himself with his arms, and looking down – making himself appear smaller than he really is. Conversely, we perceive someone standing like wonder woman, hands on hips, legs slightly apart, and with steady gaze – spreading out to make her look bigger — as a confident person. 

Cuddy’s and her colleagues’ research is not based on only subjective judgment. Here is the setup of their study. Each “performer” stands in a small room adopting a certain posture, powerful or weak, for two minutes.  She and her research team measure the testosterone and cortisol levels in the “performer’s” saliva. The researchers find that there are significant differences in the hormones before and after the two minutes. At the end of “power” posture, the performer’s saliva indicates a much stronger testosterone. In contrast, after holding the “weak” posture, the cortisol level is much higher.  

In her TED talk (link below), professor Cuddy did not encourage people to just fake their confidence for the sake of appearances. Instead, she encouraged people to rely on positive posture to grow the self-confidence that they deserve.  Of course, those who appear weak most likely don’t think that they deserve attention or praise. “Feeling like a fraud” probably applies to more of us than we realize. However, Professor Cuddy would argue that we should give ourselves a chance to at least find out if we do deserve some praise. And the best way to find out is by acting “as if.”  Just take two minutes in your office, in a bathroom, in a car, or wherever you can find the privacy to practice that “power” posture before a meeting or a presentation. What does one have to lose?  If the praise resulting from this 2-minute positive posture still doesn’t feel “right,” that would lead to different considerations and examinations. 

When Ms. Cuddy sustained a brain injury in a car accident shortly before starting college, she was distraught to find that she was no longer “smart” and many discouraged her to go on to college.  She eventually got her undergraduate degree, which took her four years longer than her cohort. She went on to Princeton for her graduate degree.  It was there, at the beginning of her graduate program, that her advisor pushed her to “fake it till you make it.”  And now she’s a professor at Harvard. So, she encourages some of her quieter students who do not feel confident to speak up in classes.  (Susan Cain has much to say about “forcing” such participation norm on introverts. I will provide some of her insights in a later time; however, Google “Susan Cain and TED” would yield a thoughtful presentation.) Cuddy senses her quiet students’ “feeling like a fraud,” exactly how she felt for the longest time. With her encouragement to “fake it till you make it,” some students have managed to shine as a result. 

In a way, many introverts know the game of “faking it till you make it” very well. That’s how they have adapted themselves to the extrovert-dominated world. So, here is a conundrum: How do we know what really goes on in a quiet person’s head? Do all quiet people lack confidence?  And why do we always need to appear confidently?

Another interesting puzzle for the posture-power dimension is the issue of empathy. A few weeks ago, I posted an entry on power and empathy (link below.) According to that study, based on neuroscience, powerful people are less empathetic. Yet, here we have professor Cuddy whose own journey had led her to occupy a seat in a powerful institute, the Harvard Business School. Along the way, she has learned to let go of that “feeling like a fraud” and become more confident, believing in her own power. Yet, she empathizes with those students exhibiting signs of “feeling like a fraud.” A paradox? Certainly worthy of more study.

Personally, I think there are differences between being powerful and being confident. A “real” fake, faking for the sake of faking, cannot lead to sustainable confidence. “Faking it till making it” may lead to some real confidence, but we need a series of such “fakes” to produce genuine confidence.  More importantly, not all confident people want to have power.  And many powerful people lack confidence. In fact, it’s quite often that we find those in the positions of power to be terribly insecure. Yet, they certainly fake appearing confident. If I were still a graduate student, these would be fascinating areas to research. 

What’s your strategy in building your confidence? Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

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Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.