Personal Power and Your Posture – What Does Your Smartphone Have to Do With It?

Businesswoman using smart phoneBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Blackberry addict? According to a new Harvard study, you may be sabotaging your leadership style by stooping over your smartphone. Sure, it may seem a little silly that your phone could influence how much confidence you exude, but research into posture and the psychology of power is no joke.

Studies have shown that when people use expansive postures they tend to feel and act more powerful. After spending as few as two minutes adopting an expansive posture, people are more willing to take risks and they tend to do better in interviews. They may also be less fearful or stressed out.

Now, say researchers Maarten W. Bos and Amy J.C. Cuddy, there is reason to believe that using bigger technology may lead you to be more assertive, and smaller tech to be less assertive. They believe it has to do with how your device affects your posture. They write:

“Just before walking into a meeting, many of us are hunched over our smart phones, reading and responding to emails, and reviewing last minute notes. Following this frenzied attempt to efficiently manage our time, we have to be on our game in the meeting. Recent research documenting the benefits of adopting expansive (vs. contractive) body postures – “power posing” – suggests that hunching over our smart phones before a stressful social interaction, like a job interview, may undermine our confidence and performance during that interaction.”

Bos and Cuddy set out to test this hypothesis, and according to their new working paper [PDF], people in their experiment who were using bigger pieces of technology (like an iMac) were more assertive than those with small ones (like an iPhone).

Assertiveness and Device Size

The researchers wanted to find out how interacting physically with different kinds of technology devices affects people’s personal power. They recruited 75 study participants and had them do a number of exercises designed to test how their posture – manipulated by the devices – influenced them to behave with respect to risk-taking and assertiveness.

While device size had no effect on their risk-taking abilities (measured by gambling games), there was a marked and significant effect when it came to assertiveness.

Bos and Cuddy continue, “After participants completed the survey, the experimenter pointed at a clock in the lab room and told participants ‘I will be back in five minutes to debrief you, and then pay you so that you can leave. If I am not here, please come get me at the front desk.’”

Then they left the room and waited ten minutes, measuring when each participant came out.

People who were using the largest devices (iMacs) were almost twice as likely to come find the experimenter than those who were using the smallest (iPhones). In fact, with each increase in device size, people were more likely to come out. Not only that, but people using the largest technology waited the least amount of time to interrupt the experimenter.

Personal Power and Psychology

What is interesting about the study is that it isolated the findings to personal power – that is, the experimenter wasn’t simply perceiving people with a larger device as more or less assertive. It’s about what made people feel and act powerful. People took the initiative to interrupt the experimenter based on their own personal psychological state. That psychology was influenced by their posture, which was manipulated by the device they were using.

Those who were forced into expansive postures because they were using big computers acted more assertively than those who were forced into contractive postures because they were hunched over smartphones.

Bos and Cuddy add, “Many of us spend hours each day interacting with our electronic devices. In professional settings we often use them to be efficient and productive. We may, however, lose sight of the impact the device itself has on our behavior and as a result be less effective. We suggest that some time before going into a meeting, and obviously also during it, you put your cell phone away.”

Certainly, that’s advice we can all benefit from.

But regardless of our posture or our phone, this advice gives all of us the opportunity to think about what makes us feel the most powerful. How can you maximize that power and leverage it to your benefit at work?