This weekend, I ran a pilot training group for our new programme. I am delighted to say it went really well. I got glowing feedback from the participants, and I am excited to roll it out to you!

Our training centres around our 5 keys to active listening, and one of these keys is effectiveness. I taught the group about effective phrasing and effective body postures. One of my tips is about power poses, and when to use them. Our discussion about power poses revealed something really interesting that I want to share with you about using research to support teaching.

 

What Are Power Poses?

In short, power poses are expansive and authoritative postures. These are great when you’re presenting or asserting yourself, but can come across as arrogant or inappropriate when talking to superiors. Power posing sends a message of confidence, but also has an air of superiority.

A 2010 paper by Amy Cuddy and colleagues claimed that holding a power pose for a full minute increased testosterone and reduced cortisol, resulting in increased feelings of power. As a result, people were more competitive and more willing to take risks after power posing. Based on this research, Cuddy gave one of the most popular TED talks of all time, explaining how power posing can change your life. Executive coaches and motivational speakers loved it. Ever since, professionals have been told to power pose at meetings, in presentations, and in the bathroom before any challenging situation.

Usually, I would encourage professionals to mirror the body posture of the speaker when they’re listening, which research shows conveys empathy and makes you more likeable (this could be a whole post in itself!). However, I have said that power poses are useful in certain challenging workplace conversations, such as dealing with complaints. Many managers worry that allowing employees to criticise them will cause them to lose authority, but listening to and acting on complaints is vital to running an effective team. My thinking was that remaining silent while power posing allows the manager to listen, but still appearing (and feeling) assertive and confident.

 

The Problem with Power Poses

During my pilot training this weekend, I was fortunate to have a fellow psychology researcher in the group, who scrutinised the citations on my slides. I cite a lot of studies, because I pride myself in doing evidence-based training and holding Glisten Training’s guidance to the highest standard.

On the whole, the researcher liked my training. But when I got to the part about Amy Cuddy’s power posing research, he looked a bit concerned. “I’m sorry to say it, but that stuff isn’t replicable. Power poses don’t really do much. I can send you the research.” After training, he kindly sent me this article, which sent me down a rabbit hole of power posing research.

His comment couldn’t have been more timely, as the very next day a co-author of the famous power pose paper released a statement saying, “I do not believe that power pose effects are real.” Her statement and its implications were covered in New York Magazine just yesterday.

Having done graduate study in research psychology, I am well aware of the replication crisis currently hitting the field. A whole host of papers are being called into question, as it turns out that many of their results might be statistical flukes. I started to worry some of the studies on which I base my training were not so solid. It reminded me to carefully review and evaluate the evidence I use to support my training. And so, I delved into the research.

 

What Do We Really Know?

It turns out power posing is probably overrated. In March last year, a new paper by Ranehill and colleagues came out with a replication attempt of the famous study that failed to show any behavioural or hormonal effect of power posing. This replication is significantly larger and more rigorous, and pretty damning for the original study. Predictably, it received far less attention than Amy Cuddy’s work got (and continues to get) in mass media – even though the failure to replicate was featured in the Huffington Post and later Slate.

The authors of the original study wrote a reply published in Psychological Science. Among other things, they proposed that Ranehill’s team might have eliminated the effect by telling the participants that the study was meant to observe the effect of power poses, while the original study had an elaborate cover study. Of course, this would suggest that knowing the intended effect of a power pose might somehow render it ineffective, which means that Amy Cuddy’s famous TED talk would have ruined the power pose for all of her 36 million viewers. That would be unfortunate.

In my estimation, it seems that power posing in itself doesn’t reliably cause any measurable biological changes, nor does it reliably make you more competitive or willing to take risks. The effects found in the famous power pose study might be down to other factors, including experimenter bias and statistical issues. This analysis by Nelson, Simmons and Simonsohn covers these problems in  depth if you’re interested.

Nevertheless, power poses are still, well, powerful. Even the critical replication study found that participants who held the power pose did reliably report feeling more powerful. The paper describes this finding as just a “manipulation check”, showing that the power poses were done properly. However, for our purposes, a feeling of power is really what we are aiming to achieve with the power pose. And that part, at least, seems to work.

Update: After this post was written, Amy Cuddy wrote a much more thorough response to criticism of power pose research. You can read it in full here.

Bottom Line

Power posing for a couple minutes alone before a big meeting or presentation is unlikely to do anything transformative for you. That said, positioning your body in an authoritative way will make you appear – and feel – more powerful. This means that you can still strike a power pose in a difficult conversation, if you want to exude confidence while you are listening. Just don’t expect it to do anything magical.

And thus, my trainee has reminded me that I should be critical of the research that backs up my training, and so should you. Like any good professional, I can listen to feedback and grow.

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