Feb. 3, 2011 at 8:49 AM ET
If you're a nobody who desperately wants to be taken seriously, Northwestern University researchers have this advice: Stop slouching, already.
Even if you're just a lowly intern, the way you hold yourself can make you feel more powerful than the boss man or boss lady -- and that can make a difference in how other people perceive you, says Adam Galinsky, of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, who authored the new study.
As an example, Galinsky mentions a 2005 New Yorker cover depicting President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Obviously, Bush is the man with the more powerful position. But take a look at each man's body language: Bush's shoulders are slumped, making him appear smaller -- while Cheney is sprawled out on that easy chair, using his body to take up more space than it actually needs. No matter your politics, in this illustration, Bush is meant to look like the subordinate, Galinsky says.
In one experiment in the study, 77 undergrads (24 guys, 53 ladies) filled out a questionnaire that they were told was meant to assess their leadership potential. While they waited for feedback from the survey, they were instructed to sit in a specific condition in a computer chair (they were told this was part of a marketing test on ergonomic chairs). The participants who were instructed to sit in the "expansive posture" position were instructed to place one arm on the chair's armrest, and the other arm on the back of a nearby chair; they were also to cross their legs so that the ankle of one leg "rested on the thigh of the other leg and stretched beyond the edge of the chair," the report says. Other participants were instructed to sit in a "constricted posture," which involved sitting on their hands, hunching their shoulders and keeping their legs together.
Participants were then paired off to complete a puzzle; each of them was randomly assigned to be a manager or a subordinate. Afterward (my, but there were many steps to this experiment, weren't there?), the volunteers were asked to fill in the blanks for seven words that were missing letters -- words that could say things like "lead" but were written "l_ad" -- and were asked to write in the first letter that came to mind. Also (yes, there's more), particpants were given a 10-question survey asking how powerful they felt.
Phew. The interesting part was that no matter if the participant was assigned to be a manager or a lowly employee, those who had sat with the sprawling, "expansive" posture answered the questions in such a way to suggest that they felt more powerful. "It was incredibly surprising to me," Galinsky says of that finding.
Do you think your posture has an effect on the way you feel about yourself?