Stories | June 22, 2015

We’re all in a position of power – but can you make it pay?

I’ve been told that when I put my hands on my hips, people know I mean business.

It’s a well-intentioned joke – but well-known research suggests there might be a serious side, and that this sort of “power pose” might help in salary and other important negotiations. The idea is back under the spotlight as newer studies question the results.

Taking a stance
One of the most-viewed TED talks to date is about power posing. With more than 26 million views by mid-2015, the talk by Harvard University's Amy Cuddy in 2012 describes research she and colleagues carried out to investigate the effect of expansive postures on hormone levels and behaviour.
Poses include “the wonder-woman” with hands on the hips, hands behind the head, or arms up-stretched in a V (think of the almost automatic reaction to crossing a finish line). Even the New Zealand rugby team’s famous pre-match haka (or war dance) gets a mention in Cuddy’s talks.
Cuddy and colleagues Dana Carney and Andy Yap found adopting two of these power poses for a minute each temporarily lowered people's cortisol levels – related to stress – and raised levels of their risk-taking testosterone hormone. Power posing has become recognised as one way to quickly improve confidence.

What about the pencil pose and the coffee pose?
This isn't the first claim that physical expressions can influence people in subtle ways.
Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman – author of the bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow – explains people find cartoons funnier if their face has been contorted into a smile by having a pencil placed lengthwise in their mouth. In a different study, the pencil-in-mouth strategy resulted in increased positive feelings towards strangers of different ethnic origins.
And research from the University of Colorado and Yale University suggests that people who warm their hands, by holding a hot drink or warm pack, rate strangers as friendlier ("warmer") and are more likely to offer a gift to someone else rather than keep it for themselves.

Is it more complicated?
However, when researchers tried to replicate the effects of the Cuddy study, they were unable to do so.
However, although this may cast some doubt on the findings, it doesn’t mean that power posing is a sham.
What it does highlight is need for more research to be done to really understand this complex phenomenon. Feeling empowered can help us in the workplace, and there may be steps we can take accordingly to improve how others perceive us.

Plump paycheque or silly sideshow?
Cuddy’s TED talk idea is to nip to the restroom or a secluded corner for a power pose before an important meeting.
Whether there is a tough change to discuss, a sale to make or an issue to deal with, a boost to your confidence might help. However, there are many other techniques that could be useful for your next big event, too.
For example, when negotiating a package, remember how real versus nominal value can make a difference to spending power.
Come prepared with evidence of your strengths, and consider anchoring on a high figure to start the negotiations.
And don’t forget there is more to a package than money: important non-monetary perks such as tuition reimbursement, gym memberships, or flexitime can be valuable.
In addition to these more traditional approaches, can the right body language really increase your salary?
We don't know for sure if power posing works.
But given the low cost and minimal effort involved in a quick power pose before your next pay negotiation, there's not much to lose by giving it a shot.

Nathalie Spencer
Nathalie Spencer

Behavioural scientist at ING