Back in the year 2000, a new coworker for me at the time, who is the best salesperson I know, explained to me in a mentorship fashion (and I paraphrase):
A great sales guy can sit in a meeting full of people and quickly identify the power structure in the room. Often, it has nothing to do with titles and the organizational chart. It has to do with figuring out who’s actually influential, who’s persuasive related to the topic on the table, and who can really make something happen.
On Facebook recently, that same friend — the wonderful Carla Harmon — drew my attention to a fascinating article about the way in which body language fundamentally shapes who we are and how we are perceived.
To be influential, the piece argues, some of us need to be very purposeful about utilizing our body language to project strength and competence – even if we’re in a room alone. According to a study, practicing “dominant” body language (chin lifted, elbows out, posture expansive) for a mere 120 seconds a day is enough to spark a 20 percent increase in testosterone and a 25 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. “Adopting these postures makes a person feel more powerful,” social psychologist Amy Cuddy explains in a Ted Talk on the topic.
But don’t get carried away. Cuddy cautions that aspiring leaders often make a mistake, which is trying too hard to demonstrate competence and power, which comes at the expense of demonstrating warmth. “Too many people try to be the smartest guy in the room — the alpha,” she writes. “And that’s not actually how you become persuasive or become a good leader. It’s a mistake. People judge trustworthiness before competence.”
Instantly, I thought of the insight Carla Harmon provided me years ago. Some people are really great at figuring out the informal power structure in a room. I’ve chalked that up to intuition. But maybe Cuddy’s work provides a more scientific explanation: they’re simply responding to body language.
More importantly, I love the lesson that Cuddy offers: projecting strength and competence will actually make us feel better and more in charge, and that’s good. But if we really want to be influential, assuming we can project a basic level of strength and competence, projecting warmth and trustworthiness is the way to go.