The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818, Kunsthalle, Hamburg
Ideas for Leaders #278

Body Language: Power Poses That Get Lost in Translation

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Key Concept

Expansive postures and gestures — leaning forward, standing tall with arms outstretched, etc — are considered part of the ‘body language’ of power. They make the ‘actor’ feel more positive and focused and they communicate confidence and authority to the observer. But not all of them ‘travel well’ or cross cultural boundaries. Recent research suggests leaders should stop and think before striking a ‘powerful pose’.

Idea Summary

Several studies have made the connection between body postures and feelings and perceptions of strength and dominance. Open and expansive body language has not only been found to communicate power but also to affect power-related thoughts and feelings and neuroendocrines (cells that release hormones such as testosterone to the blood). Constricted poses, on the other hand, are associated with neither power nor ‘power-orientation’.

Links to the animal kingdom suggest that the effects of expansive postures are part of the universal experience of being a primate. So is there a universal ‘body language of power’?

New research challenges the idea that responses to expansive postures are fundamental and invariant, proposing, instead, that they’re partly determined by cultural value and norms. In particular, it suggests that not all ‘power postures’ adopted in the individualistic West ‘translate’ to the more collectivist countries of East Asia, where modesty and humility are social norms and the self is ‘construed’ in relation to others.

Researchers tested the psychological effects and benefits of expansive versus constricted body postures in four studies, all using American and East Asian undergraduate students.

They first assessed the degree to which postures were seen to violate East Asian cultural norms. They then examined how adopting expansive postures (e.g. leaning forward with both hands spread on a desk) versus constrictive postures (e.g. sitting with hands tucked underneath thighs) made participants from different cultures think and feel.

The results point to a possible taboo in countries in East Asia — and confirm that the symbolic meaning of ‘power postures’ varies by culture.

Three expansive postures were tested, all of which have been associated with perceptions and feelings of authority, confidence and empowerment: the expansive-hands-spread-on-desk posture; the expansive-upright-sitting-posture; and the expansive-feet-on-desk posture. The third was universally perceived as the least consistent with East Asian values of modesty, humility and restraint. (The first two, on the other hand, were not perceived as violating cultural norms.)

These findings were echoed when participants were asked to enact different poses. Both Americans and East Asians felt more powerful when they enacted the hands-spread-on-desk pose and upright-sitting pose. However, when the latter group adopted the expansive-feet-on-desk pose they felt less powerful, had less implicit power activation, and showed less inclination towards action than the Americans. What’s more, whereas Americans showed greater power activation and action in the third pose compared with a constricted pose, East Asians appeared to derive no relative benefits from it. (In other words, they felt no less ‘empowered’ in a posture that in other cultures signals defensiveness and retreat.)

The research confirms that cultural origin can predict reactions to expressions and ‘embodiments’ of power. More than this, however, it shows that the influence of cultural origin persists outside ‘home territory’. All of the East Asian participants in the study could be described as ‘multiculturals’; all studies took part in the US.

Business Application

The findings have clear implications for organizations with multinational interests. Physical gestures that convey leadership in one cultural context might undermine someone’s authority in another; so what should the leader or manager do when speaking to and trying to engage with a multicultural audience or when working overseas?

Finding a ‘comfortable fit’ could be the answer. The research suggests that those who force themselves into styles not compatible with their own cultures might make themselves feel less powerful — and, ultimately, perform less well.
There is a twofold imperative, then: have respect for the cultural origin of others; have respect for your own. Effective leaders are culturally sensitive in the way they behave and communicate — but they’re also authentic and true to themselves.

Since posture appears to affect psychological ‘health’ and cognition it’s important to get it right.