Adapted from BREAKING THROUGH BIAS: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, Sept 8) by communication and gender bias experts Andie Kramer and Al Harris. They are also the authors of It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace: Women’s Conflict at Work and the Bias That Built It (2019).
When you are anxious, worried about your ability to perform up to your potential, or concerned you will be seen as less competent than you are, you may find it particularly difficult to project this sort of self-image. In these sorts of stressful situations, it is enormously helpful to have techniques available that will boost your positive sense of self. You can’t just tell yourself to project self-confidence. That is likely to be no more effective than telling yourself not to be stressed when you are experiencing great stress.
Two proven techniques that will—at least for a relatively short period of time—increase your personal, psychological sense of yourself as strong, confident, and capable: mind priming and power posing.
Our minds are “primed”— that is, conditioned, programmed, prepared, and trained—in all sorts of ways. The stereotypes you hold prime you to think about particular people in particular ways. When you are exposed to rude or cooperative behavior, your mind is primed to behave more rudely or more cooperatively than you would otherwise.14 Similarly, when you are told that women are not good at math, you are being primed to doubt your ability to do mathematics. In all of these instances, your mind is being conditioned or programmed without your conscious involvement in the process.
You can, however, consciously prime your own mind. For example, you can adopt attitudes and outlooks that are valuable for your career advancement. This sort of conscious mind priming can alter your mind-set, change your frame of reference, or purposely trigger particular psychological associations. Whatever you call it, conscious mind priming works.
One way to prime your mind is to take a short period of time to think in a focused way or write about an occasion when you felt particularly powerful, a time of great happiness, or a particularly impressive achievement you have accomplished. Take five minutes to do this before a high-stakes interview, negotiation, evaluation, speech, presentation, or group meeting. You will perform in a more confident, commanding, and self-assured manner;15 display more powerful nonverbal behavior;16 and increase your sense of confidence, optimism, and control.17 Priming your mind in this way will also reduce your anxiety and stress, and will, therefore, increase the sense others have of you as a confident leader.18
A 2012 study showed that participants who had primed their minds by writing about a time they felt particularly powerful were far more successful in negotiating mock business deals than those who hadn’t.19 Initially, many women we coach are highly skeptical about conscious mind priming, but those who try the technique inevitably become committed mind primers.
Positive mind priming works because the way you “speak” to yourself internally affects the way you see yourself; the way you see yourself affects the way you act; and the way you act affects the impression others form of you. The behavioral changes initially triggered by mind priming are generally short-lived (from a few minutes to an hour), but this sort of intentional self-conditioning can have long-lasting effects. In a study of three-person groups, for example, the one person in each group who had mind-primed was seen as the group leader at a rate nearly twice that expected by chance.20 Importantly, persons perceived as group leaders are generally given more information and more opportunities to speak than others. Consequently, a perceived leader has the opportunity to perform at a higher level, reinforcing their leadership position. In other words, the “I am strong, I am a leader” mind-set you use to prime yourself for a group meeting can have a lasting effect on your status and influence within that group.
Mind priming is about thinking your way—in a quite specific manner—to more confident and powerful behavior. You can also affect the way you feel about yourself by using your body in a quite specific manner. By assuming and holding certain poses for a short period of time, say two minutes, you can significantly boost your self-confidence, sense of strength, risk and pain tolerance, and the forcefulness of your physical presence.
The use of body posture to increase self-confidence is often referred to as power posing, and its effect is strikingly illustrated by an interesting study. Participants were told to imagine they were about to be interviewed for their dream job. For two minutes, half of the participants assumed a pose identified with high power (think Wonder Woman standing with her legs apart and her hands on her hips), while the other half assumed a pose associated with low power (think sitting with shoulders slumped, arms close to the body, and legs together). The participants were then given five minutes to prepare a presentation. After the preparation, participants made a five-minute speech about their qualifications and why they should be hired. No correlation was found between the poses the participants assumed and the quality of the content of their speeches. Nevertheless, participants who had assumed high-power poses prior to their interviews were consistently rated as more powerful, more confident, and more dominant than the other participants. Moreover, the high-power posers were consistently judged to have maintained better composure, projected more confidence, and presented more enthusiastic speeches than did the low-power posers.21
This is such a dramatic result that it is worth focusing carefully on the poses associated with high power and low power. There are good pictures of these poses in Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED Talk—one of the most popular TED Talks in history and one well worth watching.22 High-power poses include the Wonder Woman pose, the “totally confident pose” (sitting with your feet on your desk, hands behind your head, and elbows spread wide); the “all business pose” (standing and leaning forward with your hands resting on a table and your shoulders square, your chin up, and your eyes straight ahead); and the “victory stance” (standing tall with your legs apart, your head raised, and your arms held in a V high above your head). Any of these poses, held for at least two minutes before a high-stakes situation, can help you feel more powerful, which also means you will feel less anxious, inhibited, or fearful—attitudes that get in the way of performing at the top of your game.
Low-power poses involve restrictive, shrinking postures: sitting hunched or slouched down in your chair, hanging your head low, hunching your shoulders, or standing with your body stooped. Low-power poses can hurt your confidence and sense of presence in high-stakes situations.
The notion that posture is power should hardly be surprising. Think about nonhuman primates. You know immediately which great ape is the alpha male in the family by the way he carries himself compared to the other family members. Open body postures with confident, bold gestures indicate high power. Constricted, closed‑in postures indicate low power. By playing the great ape (in private) before high-stakes professional interactions, you can significantly increase both your confidence and your sense of power.