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Insights from the Behavioral Science Guy: Next time you feel nervous, assume this position

Published: Tuesday, June 24 2014 3:30 p.m. MDT

Change your posture. Body language affects not only how others see us, but also it appears to change how we see ourselves.

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Imagine you are applying for the dream job of your life. You’ve got five minutes to explain to two interviewers why they should pick you over 100 other smartly dressed candidates. As you make your presentation, the interviewers stare at you unblinkingly like a bank teller with a lobotomy.

No expression. No indication of interest. They simply watch as you pour out your pitch.

Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy designed this nightmarish torture session to provoke profound anxiety. She wanted subjects to be tested to their social-apprehension limits in order to test a surprisingly simple tool you and I can use when the pressure is on. So stay tuned.

It’s a terrible irony that when it matters most, we often do our worst. More often than not, our emotions undermine our performance in the most crucial moments of our lives.

  • You’ve got five minutes to present in front of the senior executives of your company.
  • You’re walking into an upscale restaurant for the first date with someone you’ve heard great things about.
  • You’ve finally decided to speak up about a difficult subject with your husband or wife.
Research shows that feelings of stress, fear and anxiety show up in our body language during moments like these in a way that undermines our influence. Think back to the last time youwere knotted with anxiety prior to a high-stakes encounter. What happened to your body in that moment? Did you cross your arms? Did your stomach muscles tighten involuntarily, causing you to shrink, close down, get small? When you’re in the middle of a stressful conversation or presentation, do you look down, cover your mouth with your hand, turn away from those you’re addressing or play with your hair?

Stress and fear wiggle their way up through all our attempts to conceal them and reveal our feelings in predictable ways that others can discern. These little gestures telegraph feelings of weakness and damage our credibility.

Similarly, those who feel powerful behave markedly differently as well. For example, I watched one fascinating video study of nonverbal behavior on the U.S. Senate and House floors. When the video was sped up, you could immediately spot the powerful. They would stand still like a queen bee in a hive while clouds of underlings scurried about them, touching, bobbing and bowing frantically. We telegraph our feelings of both power and powerlessness all the time, and those little messages either bolster or weaken our influence.

That’s why Cuddy’s research is so important. Where many before her have offered advice about what to do with your body during a presentation, Cuddy wanted to test whether a remarkably modest intervention just prior to the stressful session would improve performance.

Her first subjects were asked to spend one minute in a “low-power” pose: for example, standing the way you would if you were wearing a straight jacket — one foot crossed in front of the other and arms clasped protectively across the front. A short time later they resumed a normal posture and made their pitch to the aforementioned HR zombies.

By contrast, the second group spent a minute posing like Wonder Woman: hands on hips, feet apart. They, too, resumed their normal posture, then faced the interview gauntlet.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Their presentations were videotaped before being judged by neutral coders — people who had no idea what the researchers were up to. When asked whom to hire, they almost invariably chose the Wonder Woman subjects. The differences in “hire-ability” ratings were striking — more than 20 percent better for the power-posers.

But it gets better. The simple posing routine did not just influence presentation quality, but it also showed up in chemistry. In other words, changing your posture doesn’t just “psych you up” — it juices you up. It isn’t just others who are influenced by our nonverbal communications, we are too. Body language affects not only how others see us, but it also appears to change how we see ourselves.

So, next time you’re feeling nervous about a high-stakes encounter, find a closet, bathroom stall or phone booth — and do what Wonder Woman does.

It could change your life.

Joseph Grenny, the Behavioral Science Guy, is a New York Times best-selling author and cofounder of VitalSmarts. For 30 years he has led a research team helping organizations achieve new levels of performance.

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