Body Language in the Workplace

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In a perfect world, the most qualified candidate would get the job and career advancement would be based on merit alone. In reality, the image we convey through body language may have more to do with whether we succeed than most of what we do or say. Most people hold on to cultural biases that associate leadership with male traits, which means that women in the workplace are especially vulnerable to negative judgments about feminine body language.

According to Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, a business coach and author who focuses on what social scientists call nonverbal behavior, many feminine gestures are viewed as non-powerful in the workplace. Take, for example, the simple head tilt during a conversation. Women tend to do it as a sign of interest and involvement in what the speaker is saying, says Goman in an article on the American Management Association website, but quite often the gesture is interpreted as submissive rather than powerful. Additional nonverbal “no-nos” at work cited by Goman include girlish moves such as twirling your hair and playing with a necklace or earrings. Smiling too much is another body language issue for women, especially when discussing a sensitive subject, hearing negative feedback or expressing anger. In general, a woman’s body language in the workplace should always come across as professional and competent instead of flirtatious.

Besides advising women what not to do, Goman provides tips about positive body language that women should adopt. In a business meeting, the people who take up a lot of room by spreading out their arms, legs and work materials are demonstrating confidence, while those who sit with the arms and legs crossed and all of their materials in a neat pile may be viewed as less confident or closed off. Goman also suggests that women focus on the eyes rather than the mouth during conversations, especially with men, and make sure handshakes are firm and assertive.

Trying to remember all the body language do’s and don’ts for the workplace can be tricky. If you want to make one body language change that will deliver the biggest impact, consider the power pose. Many women assume that because we don’t feel confident and powerful, we can’t present ourselves as such to others. New research suggests that adopting powerful body language can actually change our attitude. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy explains how this works in one of the most-viewed TED videos of all time. Pretending to be powerful by standing with your hands on your hips and your elbows turned outward (like Wonder Woman) or with your arms raised overhead in the universal victory pose changes the levels of two important hormones in your body. Your level of testosterone, which makes you feel younger and more vigorous, is raised by about 20 percent, while your level of cortisol, which is released in response to anxiety and stress, drops by about 25 percent. Assuming a powerful posture for as little as two minutes before going into a meeting where you will be judged can actually change the way you feel about yourself, making you feel physically stronger, more dominant and even taller. Since Cuddy published her initial findings, numerous additional follow-up studies have backed up her research.

Cuddy, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, believes that practicing powerful body language affects not only how others see us but may also change how we see ourselves by changing our body chemistry. She backs up her research with her own life experience. She sustained a serious head injury in a car accident when she was a college student at the University of Colorado and was told by doctors that she probably would never be able to finish her degree. Through sheer determination, she was able to graduate several years after most of her classmates and was accepted by Princeton for graduate school. Despite her success, she lacked confidence and felt like an imposter. On the verge of dropping out, an advisor told her to “fake it.” Cuddy took the advice and found that pretending to be confident helped her keep going.

After earning a PhD and joining the faculty at Harvard, Cuddy was passing on the advice about faking it to a student who lacked confidence when she suddenly realized she no longer felt like an imposter. Cuddy had truly become the successful, powerful person that she wanted to be. Now her advice to those who feel powerless is not just “Fake it” but “Fake it till you become it.”

So the next time you have a job interview or important meeting coming up, try taking two private minutes beforehand for power posing. “Let your body tell you you’re powerful and deserving” says Cuddy, “and you become more present, enthusiastic and authentically yourself.” HLM

Sources:,, The Washington Post and The New York Times.