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Double Standards: Why Women Often Struggle with Their Executive Presence

Double Standards: Why Women Often Struggle with Their Executive Presence

women-executive-presenceWe hope you enjoyed our blog series on The Secret Handshake: Mastering the Politics of the Business Inner Circle. There was certainly a lot to cover from the book, and in reality, each section covered could have been expanded upon much more. However, there was one section in particular, on power, that is arguably one of the most important sections from the book. Power can either make or break you; power comes first, and everything falls into place afterwards. It is for that reason that this week we will delve further into notions of power and powerlessness, what it means, and how it affects things like your physiology and emotional and mental states.

Dr. Amy Cuddy, a global leader on research around presence and body language, has recently published a book called Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. Chapter five in this book is entitled “How Powerlessness Shackles the Self (and How Power Sets It Free), and it examines the differences between personal and social power (which was covered in the Secret Handshake blog series), and the difference between having power and being powerless. Dr. Cuddy begins by explaining that powerlessness can often come about when were are faced with a big change in our lives, and is followed by a self-perceived loss of power, accompanied by feelings of insecurity and anxiety. This depleted state that we experience makes us feel that we cannot cope with the situation at hand. When this happens, opportunities become threats, and therefore we actively avoid them. This is arguably the most important aspect of power versus powerlessness: when you feel powerless, you avoid opportunities, and vice versa. Power activates the behavioural approach system, and powerlessness, the behavioural inhibition system.

Another important aspect of power that is essential to understand is that personal power is uniquely essential (as opposed to social power). As Cuddy states: “Unless we feel personally powerful, we cannot achieve presence, and all the social power in the world won’t compensate for its absence” (114).

Feeling Powerless

  • Feeling powerless impairs thought: powerlessness and the anxiety that results from it undermine what psychologists call executive functions. These executive functions include high-order cognitive tools like reasoning and attention control. It also induces goal neglect, which is the phenomenon of failing to remain focused on a goal
  • Powerlessness makes us feel self-absorbed: the link between anxiety and self-absorption is bidirectional – the more self-focused we are, the more anxious we become
  • Powerlessness prevents presence

Feeling Powerful

  • Power can protect us: power acts as a buffer against negative emotions
  • Power can connect us: feeling powerful can often improve our ability to read and relate to other people. In addition, when we feel powerful we allow ourselves to be more open to others
  • Power can liberate our thinking: power seems to improve our ability to make good decisions under complex conditions
  • Power can synchronize us: feeling powerful can synchronize our thoughts, feelings and behaviours
  • Power can incite action: simply put, feeling powerful makes people proactive
  • Power can make our actions more effective: remember how when we feel powerful, we approach opportunities instead of running away from them?

Clearly, there are so many incredible side-effects of feeling personally powerful. Not only does power positively affect our lives in these ways, but it also affects our physiology. For instance, studies have shown that high-status individuals (i.e. those who possess social power) tend to have high levels of basal testosterone, which is the dominance and assertiveness hormone. Secondly, those who lack feelings of power often exhibit higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. It therefore makes sense that people who have a high sense of personal power cope better in crises. Evidently, the power of power cannot, and should not, go unnoticed.

Ways to increase your personal power can be so simple as to adopt a better body posture. Other ways include adjusting how you speak with and engage with others, as well as actively trying to deter negative thoughts that make you feel powerless. When you do so, you will notice feelings of power slowly encroaching in your day-to-day interactions. Others will notice too!

Works Cited

Cuddy, Amy. Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015. Print.

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