Body Language in the Workplace


Amy Cuddy, Harvard Business School professor and social scientist, gave a TED talk about how simply mimicking a position of power (e.g. hands on hips, chest out and chin up) in front of the mirror will make your brain naturally boost its levels of testosterone and cortisol, hormones that make you feel powerful and stress free. It’s another manifestation of the “Fake it ‘til you make it!” adage. Or, according to Cuddy, “Fake it ‘til you become it!” in her TED lecture on the way body language impacts an individual’s success.

This mantra, “Fake it ‘til you make it!”, is a very American approach to life (do people say this in other parts of the world?). Pretending to know how to do the job, pretending to know what you’re talking about and pretending to be successful are all encouraged by this mantra. The idea is that you’ll eventually be successful, and it you put your mind to it, you can attain your goals. Your presence, confidence, appearance and body language will help you “fake it” and subsequently “make it” – or succeed.

In the US, speaking and actively contributing thoughts and ideas during meetings, or taking quick action in general, are highly valued, even if what you have to say or do isn’t perfect or substantially valuable. Americans interpret this as a sign of engagement, interest and an enthusiasm for collaboration. These behaviors are all signs of a strong individual in American business culture.

Conversely, silence and a slower call to action can be seen as a lack of interest and engagement. Doing business globally reminds us that there are cultures in the world where this approach is the norm: where people hold to a careful, deductive research process where conclusions (and statements) are not made until research and planning proves any given path will be successful. This is often the norm when cultural norms around aversion to making mistakes and an even greater aversion to failure exist. Of course, there is no right or wrong approach, but how do we adapt and adjust to the global workplace when both norms exist side by side?

Cuddy’s research into how body posture influences our perception of others and even ourselves is also relevant when it comes to interactions across cultures. In situations where we might be slightly uncomfortable, challenged by a new country, culture and/or language, it’s important to understand how our partners and colleagues from other cultures perceive our body language. Observing posture and physical gestures can help reveal the subtle dynamics of what’s occurring in a meeting or interaction — who’s feeling confident, who might be on edge and how does body language change when the boss enters the room?

What are your thoughts about how body language changes from culture to culture? What have you experienced?


Comments (8 Comments)
  1. Paul Wildes

    In my experience it is often easy to see when displayed confidence has no substance. When I don’t see substance to support the “fake-it” authority and confidence my opinion of the person plummets. I would rather someone show confidence by acknowledging what they do and don’t know, and not try to pretend to be or know something else. Prove to me you really have substance and I will accept your authority.

  2. Adrian

    I guess you’ve left half the population behind who don’t want high testosterone levels. Even amongst the male population (of which I’m one) high testosterone can be a limit to success.
    Those who fake it (particularly bigging themselves up) and are found out are amongst the most despised in society. A feeling of power without actual power is particularly dangerous.
    It is true that TV programmes highlight the importance of dominance but in my opinion “The apprentice” fosters short-termism and the worst forms of management. Surely the person you want at the top should above all be a good listener. Interesting to see how the first presidential debate was reported. Romney showed a lot of signs of domination e.g. moving close to Obama but also came across as a bully to a lot of people.
    Arguably the most successful person of all time deliberately chose not to dominate and in fact associated himself with many considered to be unsuccessful..

  3. Keith

    I can’t help but think some of these suggestions are at the root of the “ugly American” sterotype perception in other countries and cultures. This Dale Carnegie approach is frought with perils. I for one am a big physically imposing guy and have had my share of sales courses and am familiar with a lot of these “games”. I worked in a company that was dominated by small men who felt compelled to dominate everyone using them. They would get in your face, nose to nose trying to achieve dominance in a conversation…faking it as this article suggests. Recognizing the methodology I would stand toe to toe and exchange spit for as long as needed to make THEM back away, thus winning the Alpha Dog exchange. The same thing occurs during business lunches, with people vying to dominate by the placement of their plates and encroachment on others personal space. This works okay in western cultures where personal space is recognized, not so much in the Far East where personal space is non-existent. Timid souls often come off as clowns by going through these motions without the actual wherewithal to back them up. The authoritative hands on hip stance as suggested often comes off more like the Forrest Gump hands on hips stance as he stands forlorn on the front porch after Jenny rejected his marriage proposal. There are a lot more effective body language tips to be had and they don’t pertain to “faking it” rather they would correct faults that project in the first place, lack of interest, indecisiveness, disinterest, and hostility. Lets correct the faults before we try to fake anything lest we write a check our real self cannot cash.

  4. adam

    Hi Keith,

    I love your feedback and depth of thought. As a former Big Ten Football player and still fairly big guy, I’m sensitive to the idea of not wanting to come off overbearing and large and also CRINGE in those alpha male situations you referred to.

    While I totally see where you’re coming from with the whole nauseating array of corporate power tactics that reduce everything to a battle of wills (YUCK!), I saw the Ted lecture on a more subtle level–one that deals with people who might be a bit more esteem-challenged than say you or I. Without getting into the deeper issues that effect ones self esteem, sometimes people need any little “trick” they can muster just to make it by.

    I certainly hope you’ve moved on to a friendlier company.


  5. Alan M. Solomon

    From a slightly different perspective, American values and culture tend to favor a more extroverted, actively engaged, even perhaps aggressive social interaction. There is an alternative for a more introverted way of being and form of leadership that is quieter, yet still effective. Try reading, “Quiet: the Power of Introverts…”, by Susan Cain. She cites Rachel Carson, the originator of environmental consciousness, as one example of an introvert who had great impact.

    The exchange above is illuminating to me. Thanks.

  6. Alysia

    I recently relocated for work from the US to Belgium. My global team often discusses these very same issues. Whether described as ugly or intrusive, Americans are indeed percieved (as stated by our counterparts) as needing to talk, just to say something whereas other cultures accept that silence simply means ‘no contest’ or agreement. Discussing these perceptions and what they mean and likewise don’t mean have improved our perceptions and communications.

    Likewise, as a tall extroverted female in the workplace, I often need to ‘watch’ my level of energy given my ‘big presence’. I can be viewed as over bearing and demanding. Self awareness and cultural perceptions are the key to success.

  7. Elizabeth


    As I am also a woman of “big presence”, I also have to be careful that I am not considered as overbearing and demanding. I have worked for several men who are small in stature and who have difficulties with me no matter what I say or do and not matter how I say or do it. I believe that it is an American male characteristic as I have had the opportunity to work for non-Americans of smaller stature and have never had this issue. It is unfortunate as people that chose to behave like that miss the opportunity of having successful women in their organization. @Alysia

  8. Karen

    I tend to favor sincere interactions both at work and at home! I guess I have confidence because I do not feel the need to try and be something I am not.

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