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Power. It’s that intangible thing that so many people strive for. For some people, feeling a sense of control — over themselves, others, situations or all of the above — is a natural thing. For others, it doesn’t come as easy.
In her TEDTalk, social psychologist Amy Cuddy shares an easy way that anyone can change not only others’ perceptions of them, but the way they feel about themselves — spending two minutes “power posing” with their arms or elbows out, their chin lifted and their posture expansive. Cuddy’s research, done in collaboration with Dana Carney, has shown that adopting the body language associated with dominance for just 120 seconds is enough to create a 20 percent increase in testosterone and a 25 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. In other words, adopting these postures makes a person feel more powerful.
But for those who already project power and competence to the world through their bodies, there is another, perhaps harder challenge: communicating warmth.
In October, Cuddy sat down for a Q&A with the TED Blog and made a truly fascinating point: that many leaders focus so much on demonstrating power and competence that they fail to communicate warmth and trustworthiness. And as Cuddy explains, warmth may actually be a truer, deeper source of power to begin with.
Says Cuddy, “…
You must understand the people you’re trying to influence or lead by building trust first before demonstrating competence and power. You must be able to show them that you understand them — and, better yet, that you can relate to them. By doing that, you’re laying the groundwork for trust. And it’s only then that they can really hear you and be open to your ideas. Trust is the conduit for influence; it’s the medium through which ideas travel. If they don’t trust you, your ideas are just dead in the water. If they trust you, they’re open and they can hear what you’re offering. Having the best idea is worth nothing if people don’t trust you.
You want to feel that you have the power to bring your full, spirited self to the situation, stripped of the fears and inhibitions that might typically hold you back. – Amy Cuddy
It’s not uncommon for people to overvalue the importance of demonstrating their competence and power, often at the expense of demonstrating their warmth. I think it’s especially common for people striving for leadership positions — in politics, business, law, medicine… you name it. Too many people try to be the smartest guy in the room — the alpha — and that’s not actually how you become persuasive or become a good leader. It’s a mistake. People judge trustworthiness before competence. They make inferences of trustworthiness and warmth before competence and power. And the reason is that it answers the question, “Is this person friend or foe?” With a stranger, you first want to know what their intentions are toward you, and then you want to know, “Can they carry out those intentions?” You have to connect with people and build trust before you can influence or lead them.
Women — Hillary Clinton, for example — have faced a kind of treacherous double bind when it comes to being seen as both competent AND warm. Women are much more likely than men to be seen as high on one dimension and low on the other (the sweet, incompetent, fragile, feminine woman vs. the strong, cruel, inhuman, masculine woman who doesn’t have a heart). I do quite a bit of research on this phenomenon, and I could talk for hours to this point. Women in the public eye are really penalized for deviations from what society has prescribed for them — which is usually to be a warm, soft caretaker — and they have to work double-time to manage that. It’s pretty unfair.
But to come back to this point: People make the mistake of over-weighing the importance of expressing strength and competence, at the expense of expressing warmth and trustworthiness. I know this may seem to contradict what I say about power posing, but it absolutely doesn’t. It’s really important to separate what you do before the interaction, from what you do during the interaction. You want to feel powerful going in — but that does not equal dominant or alpha. You want to feel that you have the power to bring your full, spirited self to the situation, stripped of the fears and inhibitions that might typically hold you back. I believe this allows you not just to be stronger, but also to be more open and trusting. But nonverbally displaying power during the interaction — now that’s another thing with different prescriptions and outcomes. I’m definitely not an advocate, as I think I’ve made clear by now, of going in and power posing in front of people in order to intimidate them. Yes, use strong, open nonverbals: Don’t slouch or make yourself small, and be as big as you can comfortably be. But don’t use alpha cowboy moves, like sitting with legs apart and your arm draped over the back of the chair next to you. That can directly undermine the trust you need to build.
So I think it’s more interesting, especially when watching leaders, to look for warmth and trustworthiness nonverbals. Look for natural smiles, for body language that is inviting, positive, and that signals interest in the other person or people. Even a gentle touch — one that’s appropriate, of course — like when one candidate gently touches the other on the shoulder. A nice, relatively recent example is watching Obama when he sings the first little bit of the Al Green song “Let’s Stay Together.” Not only does he have a surprisingly good voice, but when I watch people watch him break into that big smile, I watch them melt — I watch them warm up as they’re watching him. It’s contagious and hard to avoid. Obama has become pretty good nonverbally on both dimensions, although I think his ability to convey warmth has gotten much better as he’s become more relaxed. You see more of those natural smiles. He comes across as strong without seeming like an over-aggressive alpha. And I think he knows when it’s time to be really powerful nonverbally, and when it’s time to play it down a little bit.
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