Projecting Power and Competence

Amy Cuddy

From the very first step a financial wizard takes into a room, Stanley Zareff has a bead on him or her. He’s looking for slumped shoulders, wandering eyes, a weak handshake or, worst of all, a frown. It takes only a few seconds to make a diagnosis.


Zareff, a trained actor, has worked at Credit Suisse for 25 years, coaching bankers to convey the best professional image possible. As the communications coach in the bank’s Prime Services Consulting department, Zareff is not afraid to (delicately) critique a hairstyle or suggest that it wouldn’t kill even a higher-up to stand straighter or crack a grin every so often.


“I don’t want you to be an actor — I want you to learn the skills that actors use to convince me that you’re that character,” Zareff said, explaining his teaching technique. “I want you to convince me that this is the deal of the decade, and you need me. It is about having conviction.”


The idea that body language is key to doing business is a hot avenue for social psychology research at business schools across the country, from Stanford to Columbia to Harvard.


Behavioral psychologist Amy Cuddy studies and teaches power dynamics and nonverbal cues at Harvard Business School. A TED Talk that she gave last fall about posture — how simply adopting a dominant stance can make a person feel more confident — went viral last summer on YouTube. Today, the video has more than 3.4 million views.


Cuddy’s recent research has probed the importance of projecting an image of warmth and competence. The two dimensions don’t always go hand in hand — for example, women with children are often perceived as warmer but less competent in the workplace, she and her co-authors note in the “Research in Organizational Behavior” journal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people are more put off by a woman’s perceived lack of warmth than a man’s.


Nonverbal cues do a great deal to foster perceptions of both warmth and competence, the article says.  People seem warmer, and therefore more likable, when they flash involuntary smiles that make their eyes crinkle, lean forward and make relaxed gestures. Mimicking movements, posture and gestures is another way that a person can make a conversation partner feel more “in tune.”


All of these scientific findings find their way into Zareff’s recommendations.


“I always say in an office or around a table, mirror the client. Mirror the person that you’re working with, or want to work with, how they’re sitting; mirror their tone of voice as well as the rate of speech they’re using,” he said. “In doing that, you begin to develop a level of comfort. You earn their respect by getting on an authentic playing field with them, and then you can say and be and do whatever you want once you earn that.”


Many of the most common mistakes Zareff sees — poor posture, lack of eye contact and a failure to make small talk with a potential business partner before getting down to brass tacks — can be attributed to a lack of confidence, he said.


Cuddy’s research found that interviewers were much more impressed by candidates who adopted a so-called power pose — standing up straight, legs spread far apart and arms raised in a V — for a few minutes before a stressful interview.


But Zareff stresses the importance of a different confidence-builder: preparation. There is no substitute or shortcut for practicing a presentation, speech or pitch until the person knows the material cold, he says.


“Even the most successful people in the world, it’s fascinating to me to see how they’re just not polished,” Zareff said. “Those who practice improve, and those who don’t practice remain status quo.”


Zareff suggests people should pay attention not only to speeches but everyday conversations. Cutting down on grating filler words and phrases such as “um,” “like,” “you know,” “kind of” and Zareff’s least favorite of all, “to be perfectly honest,” makes for a more forceful message. Even leaving succinct, coherent voicemails can go a long way toward creating an impression of competence.


“To have the Harvard MBA and years of experience and being at whatever top firm you think you’re in, or running your own business — that is no longer enough,” Zareff said. “Everything is instant, and people don’t have an attention span longer than 30 seconds.”


Photo of Amy Cuddy courtesy of poptech via Compfight cc