Friday, June 25, 2010

Hardwired Humans And...Power Poses

One of the great mysteries of organizational life is how some people, who don't seem so capable to their peers, just keep getting promoted. A few years ago two staff members were overheard sharing their frustration about their boss as they left a meeting with him, one colleague saying to the other, "Sooner or later, in a moment of madness, someone will promote him."

Let's add a clue to solving the puzzle of moving up, or down, the pecking order. First let's go to basic instincts in the animal world.

A chimpanzee's rise through the ranks is not necessarily related to merit. Mostly it's by power display. Take Mike for example. Back in 1963, soon after she started her research, Dr Jane Goodall watched Mike use a unique display to rise to the alpha position of the Gombe chimp community. Dr Goodall told Mike's story to our business audiences eighteen months ago.

Initially Mike was ranked almost bottom of the adult male hierarchy, meaning he was one of the last to eat and had been attacked by almost every other male. Yet within four months he rose to alpha position. His meteoric promotion through the ranks was achieved through a unique display of power that intimidated all other males. Dr Goodall used paraffin (or kerosene) as fuel for lights and stoves. The paraffin came in four-gallon drums and at the time the empty drums were stacked at the side of the camp. The empty tins became attractive to the males as props in their power displays. All the adult males tried the empty tins, but only Mike mastered the skill and learned to keep three tins in his grasp or kicked along ahead of him. The tins made a terrible din, impressive as a display of power. The males would scatter when Mike charged through the forest with his noisy tins banging ahead of him. Quickly all the males submitted to Mike, with the then alpha the last to do so. Suddenly Mike was in the number one role. Initially Mike was a nervous leader, particularly when Dr Goodall secured the tins so they were no longer available to the chimps. But Mike settled into the role and he ruled for around six years.

Humans are not much different in terms of the role of power displays. Dr Dana Carney is an assistant professor at Columbia University Business School in New York. She and her colleagues tested whether power postures actually cause power. Do people literally feel more powerful and experience behavioral changes if they display power postures? And do low-power postures reduce feelings of power?

Power is expressed through specific body language. Expansive, open postures project high power whereas constricted, closed postures project low power.

Participants in the study were asked to hold high-power poses or low-power poses and were tested for four indicators of power: whether individuals felt more powerful, whether they focused on rewards as opposed to risks, whether they experienced increases in testosterone and whether they experienced decreases in cortisol.

Increased testosterone levels in humans and other animals reflect status and dominance and are associated with competitive behaviors. The stress hormone cortisol on the other hand tends to be higher for low-status individuals who tend to suffer more stress-related illnesses (see the December 2009 newsletter on Looking Good).

Forty-two participants (26 female and 16 males) were randomly assigned to the high- or the low-power pose condition. Participants didn't know the real reason for posing.

Power Poses

The high-power pose participants held two poses for just one minute each. One pose displayed expansiveness so the person took up more rather than less space. The second high-power pose displayed openness so that limbs were open. Both poses were rather exaggerated. For example, the first involved the person sitting with legs stretched out and feet on a desk with hands behind the head.

The low-power participants held two poses: constricted so they took up less space with shoulders and arms collapsed inward and a second pose closed with limbs around their torso. These poses were also both held for just a minute each. Both poses rather exaggerated.

To measure feelings of being "powerful" and "in charge" participants self reported by completing questions on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 4 (a lot).

To measure preparedness toward risk taking, participants (following their pose) were given $2 and told they could keep it (the safe bet) or roll the die to make $4 yet risk losing the $2. The odds of winning from the gamble were 50/50. Risk-taking behavior is associated with taking action.

Changes in testosterone and cortisol were measured by saliva tests. Saliva samples were taken before the poses and again 17 minutes after the poses.

The Results

From holding poses for just two minutes the results were significant and were the same for both genders.

High-power posers felt significantly "powerful" and "in charge" compared to the low-power posers. High-power poses caused an increase in testosterone while low-power poses caused a decrease. High-power poses caused a decrease in cortisol while low-power poses caused an increase. High-power posers were more likely to focus on rewards and take the gamble (86.36%) while only 60% of the low-power posers took the risk.

In summarizing the results, Carney and her colleagues concluded, "That posing in high-power (versus low-power) displays causes physiological, psychological and behavioral changes... of power... – elevation of the dominance hormone testosterone, reduction in the stress hormone cortisol and increases in behaviorally demonstrated risk-tolerance and feelings of power."

Display Implications

The findings raise a number of possible implications for life in organizations.

1. The poses were held for just two minutes. Imagine the impact on our personal projection of power and control, or lack of, if we habitually adopt open, expansive postures versus closed, hunched postures.

2. If we carry ourselves in more powerful displays rather than hunched or constricted poses we will tend to be more inclined to action rather than inaction so our personal effectiveness should be enhanced from high-power postures.

3. People who display openly and occupy more space and hence feel more powerful may be perceived by others as more powerful and more impressive. People displaying power might be more inclined to be appointed to positions of power. Yet in making decisions about others we should remind ourselves to look at objective data and not be dazzled by their displays.

4. People who display high-power might win a greater share of scarce organizational resources than people who are inclined to hold low-power poses.

5. If we are in positions of power (such as a manager role) take care not to adopt poses that might intimidate and make others feel less powerful and inhibited. Yet the contrary is also true, that if we are in positions of power we need to display appropriate power to carry the required influence in our role. Adopting low-power poses as a manager will inhibit your leadership. It's a fine balance that's required.

6. Just prior to facing a difficult confrontation you could prepare by holding an exaggerated power pose for a minute (I'm thinking you would do so out of sight). This may sound a bit theatrical, but if it helps to make you feel more powerful, to be more in control and to boost your testosterone, then why not?

7. Take care not to show that you are intimidated by more powerful people. Low-power poses will accentuate your disadvantage and the other person's dominance. Chimps submit by hunched, closed postures and often extend a hand to the mouth of the dominating individual. The benefit of submission is to placate the intimidator.

When I think about the boss whose staff thought that he was sure to progress in the organization, he walked with a swagger, he filled space and had an assertive, open stance...and he did get promoted.


Thanks to Andrew O'Keeffe / Hardwired Humans