Should you strike a powerful pose?

  • 29 November 2010
  • From the section Magazine
Image caption Make like a lion and strike a powerful pose

Can we fool ourselves and others into feeling good in the workplace, asks Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times.

I am composing this letter with my feet up on the desk and my keyboard balanced on my thighs. Because the position isn't terribly comfortable, I had better be quick.

The reason for sitting in this curious way is to test a new scientific theory that states that by assuming a powerful position you become more powerful. To sit legs up does not merely make you more impressive in the eyes of the world, it makes you more impressive in your own eyes too.

According to research from Harvard Business School, striking a "power pose" raises testosterone levels by an average of 20% and lowers cortisol (the stress hormone) by a similar amount.

The study, snappily entitled " Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance ", as well as being interesting in itself, restores one's faith in the utility of the work being carried out at Harvard Business School.

Here is a dead easy way of being more successful that doesn't involve putting your career on hold for a year while you spend more than $100,000 (£64,000) on an MBA. To make it, you simply have to fake it.

The theory explains why women don't do so well at work. It's not so easy for us to sit legs on the desk if we are wearing a skirt. And we aren't good at gestures of power. Even though we might be skilled at fooling others, we are less good at fooling ourselves.

However, there is another, even more interesting, piece of research that I stumbled on recently concerning something that women are excellent at - flattery.

A recent article in The Economist described a study done by Jennifer Chatman at the University of California, Berkeley. She set out to discover whether there was a level at which flattery stops working - and found that there wasn't.

I was pretty sceptical, as I'd always thought shameless crawling was not merely undignified but ineffective, too. So I decided to put this theory to the test. I picked on six colleagues, each of whom had recently written something that I admired, and plied them with praise in increasing quantity.

I waylaid my subject, and started: "I much enjoyed your piece on 'xx'," then proceeded to phase two: "I mean it was incredibly clever," and from there to: "In fact it was by far the best thing that I've read in the newspaper - or anywhere - ever." I finished off with: "I just don't know how you do it. You are a total genius."

In each case the smile got wider as the dose increased, and by phase four there was a flush of pleasure across the face. In three of the cases the subject told me in return that I was also a genius, an observation that I found myself inexplicably willing to take at face value.

Of course, dispensing flattery so calculatingly does not feel entirely comfortable. But at least it doesn't give you pins and needles.

I can now confirm that sitting with your feet up for prolonged periods may make you more powerful, but it also makes you lose sensation in your legs.