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Confidence-boosting body language hacks for everyday workplace scenarios

We all know how important body language is – awkward politician handshakes can dominate news coverage for weeks; the eye line of suspects in the dock are examined by criminologists for signs of guilt or innocence; CEOs are discussed in terms of their presence and impact as much as, if not more than, their content.

Despite this fascination, you probably tend to think far more about how your non-verbals will impact on others (and the opinions they’ll form about you as a result), than you consider how your physiology influences how you feel about yourself. A perception persists that to alter your stance in order to seem something other than what you’re really feeling, is inauthentic – the expression ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ has been used to describe the process of adopting an outwardly confident strut in order to increase your inner esteem. But what if science could prove that by striking a pose, you are simply reconfiguring your brain to showcase you at your very best?

There is evidence to suggest this is indeed the case. Harvard psychologists have found certain positions, held for as little as two minutes, can indeed make us embody the very characteristic we hope others perceive in us. In this scenario, you don’t just fake it until you make it; you fake it until you become it.

 

“Our minds change our bodies. Our bodies change our minds. [Power posing] is about re-configuring your brain to cope best in any situation.”

Amy Cuddy, Social Psychologist

 

Body language hack #1: The Power Pose

When to use it: Before (never during) any evaluative situation where the opinion formed by others matters, e.g. job interviews, salary negotiations, giving presentations, meeting senior figures for the first time, going for a promotion.

How to do it: You have options depending on your environment:

  1. In a lift or toilet cubicle: Stand up straight and tall, feet apart, chin lifted and hands on hip (think Wonder Woman);
  2. In a private office or meeting room: Lean on a desk in front of you, feet and hands apart but relaxed (never gripping the table); chin up or looking directly ahead, or…
  3. Sit in a chair with your hands behind your head and your legs either crossed casually in front of you, or elevated on the desk before you (the classic, clichéd executive at desk pose).

Why it works: Participants in a study adopted one of the above poses for two minutes, while other subjects adopted lower power poses (hugging arms and legs to chest, seated with one hand on knee, thigh or neck). Their hormone levels and responses to certain situations and questions were then evaluated. Those who’d adopted a power pose showed a 20% increase in testosterone - the hormone linked to dominance (those adopting low power poses showed a 10% decrease in the same). High power posers also showed a 25% decrease in stress hormone cortisol, versus the lower power powers’ 50% increase. Power posers were also 25% more likely to take a risk, and reported feeling more assertive, optimistic and able to think in more abstract terms. The beauty of this pose, as described by Amy Cuddy, the Harvard psychologist behind the study, is all you need is “your body, privacy, and two minutes [in order to] significantly change an outcome in your lives”.

 

Body language hack #2: The Space Invader

When to use it: When you’re in the presence of a competitor or more dominant figure who tends to be centre of attention or prevents you from being heard in meetings and discussions.

How to do it: Make larger, wider, bolder hand gestures when emphasising a point (rather than small, intricate movements); position yourself around a table in a way which gives you space and allows to clasp your hands together with your elbows and forearms parallel to the table. Correct yourself each time you become physically ‘smaller’ in response to anything being said or done around the room – remain upright and avoid ‘scrunching’.

Why it works: “If someone’s being powerful with us,” says Amy Cuddy, “We tend to complement rather than mirror.” We see this frequently when lower rung politicians (arms folded or close to body, legs together) are in the presence of a more powerful and charismatic leader. Maintaining your own power does not deplete that of another – you are not taking up their space, merely ensuring you have enough of your own.

 

Body language hack #3: The Synchronised Brainstormer

When to use it: When you’re generating ideas or solutions with a colleague. Or, you can observe it in others when deciding which team members are best paired together for optimum creative output.

How to do it: Gesture with both hands (rather than one hand) to make your points, and mirror whomever you’re brainstorming with. If you’re observing this in others in order to make better decisions about team dynamics, take the advice of Stanford’s Jeremy Bailenson: “Give your dozen candidates a two-minute test to see which pairs synchronise and which ones don't [and] you’ve got an innovative team detector.”

Why it works: Mirroring those around you, like ‘power posing’ might feel like fakery, but scientists have found when we are physically in sync with those around us (reflecting their head and body movements), we come up with more ideas, in terms of both quality and quantity. “Gauging the synchronicity of head movements proved a powerful predictor of creative output,” concluded a Stanford University study.

 

Body language hack #4: The Student Teacher

When to use it: When you need to demonstrate an aptitude for learning (e.g. when you’re being given complicated instructions or are requesting more responsibility in a critical project). Similarly when you’re giving instruction or training others.

How to do it: Keep your head and torso still, avoiding turning, large, jerky gestures and movements, or moving your hands. If standing, remain tall and upright, don’t pace.

Why it works: A Stanford experiment showed that not only were test scores lower among students with teachers who paced or made larger gestures to articulate points; but also when we are perceiving another’s ability to learn, our judgement is more favourable, the stiller they are. “The critical thing from a psychological perspective,” said the report, “is that regardless of whether we know the cause, we can detect whether people are about to learn or not [and] this gives us the opportunity to devise ways to adjust in real time to improve learning.”

What the study was unable to determine was whether sitting stiller actually improved learning or whether it just created this impression, though they hypothesise “making a person aware of his or her body movements can induce a behavioural change that will increase their score”.

 

Body language hack #5: The ‘Squinch’

When to use it: When you’re posing for a professional photograph, e.g. LinkedIn profile picture, organisational security pass or intranet directory headshot.

How to do it: Squint ever so gently at your photographer, just as you do when you’re naturally in a genuine, relaxed smile.

Why it works: This specific technique,” say image analysts at photofeeler.com, “is based on the theory that wide open eyes [such as the less camera confident tend to have when being photographed] look fearful, vulnerable, and uncertain. Therefore, [squinching makes the model] look more confident, increasing the subject's perceived competence by an average of +0.33 [significant when considered on a scale of one to five].”