Power to the People


Body language and nonverbal expressions can demonstrate dominance in the workplace.

By Deb Gulbrandson, PT, DPT

As business owners, we operate under a certain amount of stress pretty much 24/7. Whether applying for a new line of credit, negotiating better rates from insurers, or preparing for a performance review with a less than stellar employee, a level of tension runs through our everyday activities.

Some of us are better suited to handle the stress than others. You may be aware of the technology, education, and design (TED) talk by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard University on “Power Posing.”1 In her presentation, Cuddy shared her interest in power dynamics, specifically nonverbal expressions of power and dominance. What does that mean?

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Much has been studied and written about nonverbal communication. A look, a shrug, or even our posture communicates as much or more than the words we say. Research by Alex Todorov of Princeton has shown us that judgments of political candidates’ faces in just one second predict 70 percent of senate and gubernatorial outcomes.2 Those of us of a certain age may recall the Kennedy/Nixon debate revolution. This was the first televised presidential debate. Those who listened on the radio thought Nixon had won. Those who watched it on TV thought Kennedy won. It was widely agreed that Nixon’s appearance—sweating, five o’clock shadow, weight loss due to a recent surgery—lost him the election. We make sweeping judgments based on postures, expressions, and appearances.

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In nonverbal expressions of power and dominance, we physically open up, become bigger. It is seen in the animal kingdom as well as the human one. Think King Cobras or gorillas. We are told that when we encounter a wild animal such as a mountain lion, we should make ourselves larger to reduce the possibility of an attack. When we feel less powerful, we shut down; try to make ourselves smaller. Cuddy describes five high power postures (including one dubbed the “Wonder Woman” pose) and five low power poses. (See Figure A.)1

While much of science has centered on nonverbal communication with others, Cuddy and associates focused on our nonverbal communication with ourselves. We are influenced by our own postures in terms of how powerful we feel. This was drawn out in an experiment, which she and her colleagues conducted. Two groups were each instructed to pose for two minutes in either a high or a low power pose. No mention was made of power, they were simply instructed to “stand like this for two minutes.” A saliva sample was taken from each individual prior to posing and again after posing. The results are shown in Figure B.2

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Based on these results we see that our bodies’ postures can affect our physiological levels. In today’s health care environment with all its challenges, we could all use a little boost. In as little as two minutes per day we can reduce the stress-reactive hormones that affect our health and well-being and increase the confidence-boosting hormones as well. How helpful would it be to engage these resources just before entering into a negotiation or other stressful events? Just be sure you find an inconspicuous spot such as a bathroom or elevator.

I’ve always been a believer in the philosophy that the only things we can truly control in our lives is our reaction to events. As Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation—we are challenged to change ourselves.”3

Watch Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on “Power Posing.” It may just change the way you interact with the world. 


1. Carney, Dana R., Amy Cuddy, and Andy J. Yap. “Review and Summary of Research on the Embodied Effects of Expansive (vs. Contractive) Nonverbal Displays.” Psychological Science (in press).

2. TED Talks: Amy Cuddy—Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.

3. Frankl Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. Published in 1946. New Edition 2006 by Beacon.

Deb Gulbrandson, PT, DPT, is a PPS and editorial board member and owner of Cary Physical Therapy in the Chicago area. She can be reached at deb@caryphysicaltherapy.com

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