How Your Posture Can Help You Become a Better Leader

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A communications coach on how posture affects your hormones and your mentality, and how you can use this knowledge in practice. 

By Hema Khatri (Associate, Kenning Associates)

Next time you are on an airplane, take a look around.  If you look closely enough you’ll notice a phenomenon that I’ve experienced many times: the men on the plane have spread out unabashedly, while women have constricted their bodies to make themselves smaller than they are. As a petite woman of 5’4”, I have repeatedly been surprised by the audacity of the men next to me whose arms sprawl over the divider and knees almost touch mine.

At first I rationalized that it was that these men couldn’t quite fit into the small seats, but upon further inspection size was rarely the sole explanation.  What I concluded was that these men carried themselves differently than I did; they were unapologetic about the space they took up. I first noticed this on an airplane, but once I took this awareness into the world, I saw it everywhere. Looking solely at body language, women didn’t seem to come across as powerful as men in many instances. I saw examples of low power poses that made women smaller – crossed legs, crossed arms, hunched shoulders – in conference rooms, classrooms, coffee shops, restaurants, and even walking down the street.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy observed this phenomenon in her classroom, manifested as women exhibiting body language associated with low power participating less than their male counterparts. This led Professor Cuddy and her coauthor Dana Carney to wonder if body language was in turn affecting how the women in their classes felt. Professors Cuddy and Carney published a paper on this topic in 2010 called "Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance." In this paper, Cuddy and Carney show that simply holding one's body in expansive, "high-power" poses for as little as two minutes stimulates higher levels of testosterone (the hormone linked to power and dominance in the animal and human worlds) and lower levels of cortisol (the "stress" hormone that can, over time, cause impaired immune functioning, hypertension, and memory loss). Controlling for subjects' baseline levels of both hormones, the researchers found that high-power poses decreased cortisol by about 25% and increased testosterone by about 19% for both men and women. In contrast, low-power poses increased cortisol about 17% and decreased testosterone about 10%.

These findings support the idea that not only does body language affect the way that others perceive us, it also impacts the way we perceive ourselves!  In other words, we shape our bodies and in turn our bodies shape us. When we unconsciously carry ourselves in a "low power" way, we end up feeling less powerful. To take this one step further, research by Pranjal H. Mehta, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, has shown that the combination of high testosterone and low cortisol is correlated to dominance in leaders.

As someone who has cultivated a strong yoga practice over the past five years, these findings support something that I’ve felt intuitively for some time: that moving my body differently has an impact on my mind. After a good yoga class, I come away feeling both powerful and calm – qualities that correspond to the high testosterone and low cortisol combination from Professor Cuddy’s research. This is likely because many yoga poses require a broad chest, raised arms, and a stretched, expansive body.

Yoga is not the only path to a more powerful and "leader-like" self. I believe that anyone who engages in a physical practice that takes them out of their mind and makes them more aware of their body has an advantage when it comes to feeling more powerful, calm, and ultimately more like a leader. This of course applies to both genders, but I think women in particular could benefit from these principles, taking up more space in poses that allow them to exhibit and own their power. A place to start is to follow Amy Cuddy’s recommendation to stand for two minutes in a power pose before an important meeting or interview. Use your body language to your advantage and, as she says, "fake it until you make it."  And, make sure to spread out on your next flight!

This post originally appeared on the Kenning Associates blog

How aware are you of you body language?

36b4813About the blogger: Hema Khatri is a leadership and communications coach with Kenning Associates and a certified yoga teacher. Hema works with organizational leaders and individual contributors to explore ways they can communicate more effectively, assess and leverage their strengths, and build positive team dynamics.