I see it all the time. When people find out that I’ve been hired to speak about body language, everyone does the same thing: they change their posture. They hold their head higher, pull their shoulders back and tighten their abdominal muscles.
In doing so, people are transformed, instantly looking more powerful, confident, and energized. And they remain that way … for about 60 seconds. That’s how long it takes most people to relax back into their usual way of sitting or standing. And “usual” for too many of us is the result of old injuries or current bad habits from activities like sitting hunched over at the computer with shoulders rounded and head pushed forward – which over time makes it feel normal to hold our bodies improperly.
While there are numerous studies that relate good posture to health, I know that posture is also crucial to performance and career success. Without a state of balance in the body (which is my definition of perfect posture) people aren’t able to reach their full potential in any business activity – and certainly not in leadership. How many slumping CEOs have you seen?
Posture affects how people perceive you. Just as someone with good posture sends nonverbal signals of energy, confidence, and health, a person with poor body posture appears uninterested, uncertain, or insecure – which is not the impression that any of us want to project to our bosses, customers, and colleagues.
Posture affects confidence in our own opinions and abilities
An Ohio State University study found that people who sat up straight were more likely to believe what they wrote down concerning their qualifications for a job. On the other hand, those who were slumped over their desks were less likely to accept their own written-down statements as valid.
Good posture makes us tougher
A joint study by the USC Marshall School of Business, and J.L. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, found that by simply adopting more dominant poses (open and expansive posture), people felt in control and were able to tolerate more physical pain and emotional distress.
Posture matters more than hierarchical power
Research from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, discovered that “posture expansiveness,” positioning oneself in a way that opens up the body and takes up space, activates a sense of power that produces behavioural changes in a person independent of their actual rank or role in an organization. In fact, it was consistently found across three studies that posture mattered more than hierarchy in making a person think and act in a more powerful way.
Impressive as they are, the studies quoted above (as well as the Harvard and Columbia School of Business “Power Poses” research in which participants increased their testosterone levels by placing their bodies in expansive poses for two minutes) are focused on the results of posture that is held for relatively short period of time. But what if people could maintain proper alignment throughout the entire workday? The only research I found on that concerns the AlignMed Posture Shirt – a spandex top with built-in elastic bands that roll your shoulders back and down.
When I went to their website, I found validating medical research, but I was most interested in a month-long study with 95 computer users who wore this shirt while on the job in a call center at Colorado Springs Utilities. It had been noted that people with poor posture at work report low energy levels leading to lethargy and reduced productivity, and that the greatest potential challenge to posture during this age of technology is sitting and working at a computer. The goal of the Colorado study was to determine the effects of wearing the Posture Shirt on musculoskeletal health during prolonged computer use.
As you might have anticipated, the garment had a favorable effect on the physical alignment of occupational computer users. The shirts, which were worn under normal business attire, urged shoulders to move back to decompress nerves, improve grip strength, and increase lung function. A beneficial bi-product of these improvements – and the result that caught my attention – was a reduction of fatigue and a psychological boost in energy that resulted in greater endurance and productivity, which was sustained throughout the four weeks.
We know instinctively which nonverbal signal is the most crucial for business success. (Our mothers were right!) When we improve our posture, through attention, reformed habits, exercise, or by wearing a posture-aligning shirt, we display more energy, resilience, and confidence. In essence, we look and feel successful!
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.