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Dominance or prestige - what your posture says about you as a leader

According to new research people believe that leaders get to where they are through...

Dominance or prestige - what your posture says about you as a leader

According to new research people believe that leaders get to where they are through either prestige or dominance. Body language reveals who’s who.

It was the slightly bizarre - but apparently effective - confidence tip that grabbed the attention of the world’s media. And then questions about the scientific rigour of the research underpinning the theory threw it into doubt.

The theory behind “Power Posing” is that not only do we adopt expansive, open, powerful body language when we feel confident but that the causality works both ways. In other words, make a conscious effort to stand like Superwoman and your confidence will be boosted. The TED Talk given by Amy Cuddy, the Harvard Business School psychologist who co-led the research, has chalked up over 56 million views.

Power Posing – fact or fiction?

But in 2016 Cuddy’s fellow academic, Dana Carney, published a paper questioning the scientific integrity and the methodology of the research behind Power Posing. The academic debate raged for some time afterwards. The fact remains, though, that millions of people can testify to the fact that adopting confident body language does make you feel more confident.

Does this simply mean that since leaders need to project confidence, going for a confident stance will make you look like a leader? According to new research, it’s more complicated than that. The findings suggest that your boss will probably exhibit one of two varieties of body language. The first comes from prestige, in other words they really know their stuff and deserve to be where they are. The second is about dominance – they’re a bit of a bully.

A team led by Zachary Witkower and Jessica Tracy at the University of British Columbia, has been exploring the distinction between the non-verbal behaviours exhibited by leaders whose positions are based on prestige, in contrast to those who rely on dominance. The research also looks at how their body language affects the way in which we perceive and respond to those who are senior to us.


Prestige leaders show empathy

The prestige leaders show empathy towards their teams. They share their expertise and support those working for them. As well as signalling their status they also appear warm, approachable and pro-social. Dominance leaders, on the other hand, feel obliged to express aggressiveness to maintain their exalted position.

Both though, demonstrated confident, expansive body language in experiments. There was though, one subtle but important, distinction. Four studies which involved exposing cohorts of adults to computer generated avatars or photographs of actors, bore out what the researchers had already suspected. A downward tilt of the head and the absence of a smile suggested a dominance leader, while an upward head tilt and a smile implied prestige.

In a fifth study, nearly 200 students were divided into 36 single sex groups and asked to complete a complex task. Afterwards those in each group were asked to rate their colleagues for prestige, dominance, social influence and liking. Alongside this, two researchers rated the participants’ social influence.


Prestige body language increases social influence

According to the findings students who adopted the prestige body language (head tilted down and a smile) were duly awarded higher prestige ratings. They were also judged to have exerted more social influence.

What about those who were considered to be dominant? An analysis of their body language showed that although the instances of downward head tilts and smiling didn’t vary much from the prestige leaders there was another difference. Dominant types were more likely to extend their limbs – perhaps thereby appearing to invade other people’s space.

Finally, the researchers turned to a public example of leaders’ body language as a further test of their theory. They watched the 2016 presidential debates. Hillary Clinton who was seen to be a prestige leader had a more open chest, an upward head tilt and a greater propensity to smile. Donald Trump, by contrast, as a perceived dominance leader, took up more space with his arms, looked down and rarely, if ever, smiled.


Even babies can differentiate prestige leaders from bullies

So profound is the distinction between these two types of body language that even babies can perceive it, according to research conducted by Renee Baillargeon, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois. Professor Baillargeon developed a series of cartoons depicting a character as a leader or a bully.

This character then gave the familiar order “Time for Bed” to other characters. It was noticeable when the other characters disobeyed the leader the young viewers knew that this was wrong. But when those ordered to go to bed disobeyed the bully, they couldn’t see a problem. This suggests that the ability to differentiate between someone who has earned their position of authority rather than someone who achieves and maintains it by bullying, is hardwired.

So, what is the body language lesson for leaders who want to be characterised by prestige rather than dominance?

  • Keep your head up
  • Smile more often
  • Keep your chest open and your shoulders back
  • Breathe
  • Your body language can be open and expansive but be careful not to encroach into other people’s space

We’ve been particularly interested in these two pieces of research, at Threshold, as their findings really fit with what we say about “the high confidence and high humility matrix.” As a leader you should work on projecting both confidence and humility.

Part of the HOW TO WORK WITH HUMANS series, by Threshold.

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