Amy Cuddy photographed at Harvard Business School. Photo credit: Bob O'Connor Amy Cuddy photographed at Harvard Business School. Photo credit: Bob O'Connor

Few Harvard Business School professors have had their ideas featured in Gray's Anatomy. And in ad campaigns for Secret deodorant. And Dilbert comic strips.

But Amy Cuddy's has. Cuddy's research--her presentation on the subject of "power posing" is the second most-watched TED talk ever with nearly 30 million views--has leapt into both pop culture and corporate culture, featured in TV shows (including Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and on the speaking circuit (gigs, she says, have included Zappos, Accenture and SAP).

The idea, described in a 2010 paper, is that spending two minutes before a stressful event like a job interview holding "expansive" power poses--such as putting your hands on the hips like Wonder Woman--can increase testosterone and lower the stress hormone cortisol. "The mind shapes the body," she says, "and the body shapes the mind."

Since the TED talk, Cuddy has heard from people worldwide about how they've put the book's ideas to work in their lives--such as a waitress who used it before taking her medical school entrance exam or a man who told her he sees a difference in his father, who has Alzheimer's, after he strikes a power pose for a few minutes.

But there has also been some pushback. A study published earlier this year that used a larger sample did not find that power poses had an affect on hormones or behavior--though it did influence the subjects' perceptions of their power. Cuddy, back in the headlines with a new book, Presence, told On Leadership that the two studies have different methodologies, but said the additional research adds to the field. "When you have a novel, exciting finding, that gets attention," she said. "People are going to push back, and that's honestly how science should work."

We spoke with Cuddy about her new book, what she thinks of Obama standing in his Oval Office address, and what the affect crouching over our screens could be having on our jobs. "We're often hunched over our phones to be more productive at work," she said, "But it's possible that doing that is actually undermining our efficiency." Excerpts from our interview below have been edited for space and clarity.

Q: You're most known for the concept of "power posing," but your book takes a step back and looks much broader. How do you define the idea of "presence" in your book? 

First of all, it's temporary. It’s not some permanent state that you eventually get to by taking a pilgrimage around the world, or some kind of big spiritual journey. It’s something that comes and goes. It really is the ability to--in challenging moments--know who you are and be able to access your core self, your best qualities, the talents that you need in that moment, the knowledge that you need in that moment. It's being able to respond to what's happening, not to what you fear might happen.

Q: The idea of "power posing" has really taken off in popular culture, showing up in TV shows and comic strips. It seems to have taken on a life of its own.

I think this really illustrates it. About a week ago, I got a facial. I was about to do a TV thing--I don’t normally get facials--and I said to [the aesthetician]: 'I want to look good on TV. Can you give me something that will make my skin glow?' And she said 'look, if you're going on TV, I have some other advice for you.' And she goes 'this is a little weird, because you look a little like her. But there’s this talk, and if you stand like a gorilla'--she does this pose like a gorilla--'it will make you feel much less anxious before doing something like TV.' And I go 'yeah, I'm her.' And she says 'I know, aren’t we all?' I loved that.

Q: She still didn't get it.

I said 'actually I am the person who gave the talk.' And then she was like 'oh my god! You are.'

Q: How much do you think the broader conversation about women in leadership has played a role in this concept becoming popular? Are women particular beneficiaries of this idea?

I can’t tell anyone we're no longer dealing with sexism, because we are. I'm not in any way suggesting that the burden should be on women to single handedly, collectively change it. But the fact is we all bump into people with biases against us, and that’s one of the most challenging situations that we face. So I wanted to start giving people tools that are scientifically grounded. If you're going into finance, you might be dealing with a lot of sexism and a lot of alpha behavior. How are you going to deal with that? How are you going to feel powerful and comfortable with being who you are?

That was a big motivator with me, to be able to lead with that message: Things kind of stink. There are still almost no women on boards of directors. This is going to change slowly. Part of what’s going to happen is we’re going to be less afraid going into situations. And here's something we can do to be less afraid.

Yet I am still surprised that half the emails I get are from men. I know that my son deals with thoughts of anxiety and fears and pressures as well. I don’t want this to be something that’s just for women. I think it’s a burden that men carry around, to not be able to say 'I feel insecure, I feel like an imposter.'

It’s not until kids are in middle school that you really start to see changes in how boys and girls hold their bodies. Even though the kids are aware of the associations, an 8-year-old girl will still do a cartwheel and throw her arms up in the air. It's not until they get to middle school that you start to see that girls start to collapse, sort of roll inwards, wrap themselves up. All of a sudden your energetic daughter is like a shrinking violet. There are clearly gender differences in how we learn to hold ourselves--and those are more pronounced in some cultures than others--but showing girls that they are allowed to carry themselves with pride and that doesn't make them look like a boy is such an important part of this message.

Q: Let's talk a little about the idea itself and your research. If I understand correctly your initial paper had like 42 participants. Has this idea been replicated on a bigger scale?

If we were doing it now we would certainly want to include more people. Just to be clear, running people through these studies one at a time is tough. Doing it right, collecting saliva samples properly, storing them properly--all of those things take time. So it would be nice to have a bigger sample.

I did a recent review on the research on expansive versus contractive postures. There are more than 30 studies showing the effects of expansive posture on various things like feeling more power and confidence. There's work looking at how upright posture effects memory for more positive events in your life. When you really break it down, it’s about expansive versus contractive posture, and there's a lot of research on that.

Q: So the original power posing study has not been replicated?

There was a paper that was a conceptual replication. They did not find an effect on hormones, but they did find it effected the feel of power. It was a very, very different study from ours. For example, people held poses for six minutes instead of two minutes. People were told the hypothesis before the study began. There are some other methodological things.

This whole area of social neural endocrinology has evolved so quickly, just in the last five years. I want to continue to dig into this, using the kind of techniques that are available now.

Q: If you're a leader and you've gotten coaching that you're not accessible, or that you're dominating the conversation, is there a way this can be turned on its head, making someone seem less powerful?

I would never encourage anyone to adopt a contractive posture. It's not good for you physically. It's not good for you psychologically. But I think there are more calming poses, like the child's pose in yoga--that's the kind of thing I can imagine having a positive effect. But this is me stepping outside of my scientific expertise.

Q: Are there ways leaders and managers could apply this more to how they manage other people?

When you’re interacting with people who work for you, be aware if [they appear] scared. I encourage my HBS students--who do acquire quite a bit of power in their lives--to pay attention to the body language of the people they're interacting with. If they start closing up, something’s going on. The trust has been disrupted.

One of the things that happens as we acquire more power is we stereotype more. We use more shortcuts. When you have status and formal power, don't forget to take the time to see things from [others'] perspective, to understand how interacting with you might be intimidating.

Q: What does all this say about the effect that hunching over our laptops and our iPhones has on us--not just on our spines and our health, but on our behavior and our careers?

There's so much work on the connection between slouched behavior and depression. Depressed people have different postures, we know that. And we know that when you force them out of that posture, they become less depressed. That link is so tight. The posture we adopt when we're over those phones looks like a depressed person's posture. The fact that physiotherapists are finding these dowager’s humps in teenagers now--that's alarming.

Q: President Obama recently surprised people by giving an Oval Office address from behind a podium rather than behind his desk. What did you make of that? 

I have to say I didn’t watch it. But I opened my email, and I had like a million emails from people saying 'oh my god why did Obama stand?'

I can't speak to why. But I don’t understand how someone can sit to deliver a serious speech. I don't know how you can sit to deliver any speech. It’s so enervating. If you want to feel strong and powerful and present, you have to be standing. Certainly, that's what all the research would suggest.

Read also:

What to do with your hands when speaking in public

How I learned to be more confident

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