Managing: The key to exuding power? Acting!

A drama course for MBAs at Stanford teaches students to walk and talk like a powerful person.

Wielding power comes naturally to some. Fund manager Eric Sprott, for instance, has been known to carry an antique battle ax into meetings. Jann Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone, would swill vodka and eat raw onions during meetings, confident that no one would question his behaviour.

The dynamics during those meetings with Wenner intrigued Deborah Gruenfeld, then a staffer at the magazine, who now researches power as a professor of organizational behaviour at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California. Through her work, she’s discovered many people simply don’t know how to behave when they find themselves in positions of authority. They are either uncomfortable with power, leading to weak, ineffectual management, or they are completely domineering. “That’s also suicide in most professional situations,” she says.

Gruenfeld, who had her own doubts about how well she projected authority when lecturing, developed a unique course for Stanford MBA students that employs drama instructors to teach pupils how to convey power, or defer to it. Now in its third year, the course is always oversubscribed, and Gruenfeld even gets requests for private coaching from established business people with insecurities.

The first hurdle to get over is the idea that acting to show power is “faking it,” a violation of one’s true self. Gruenfeld argues that the concept of an authentic self is mostly a western belief. “In many other parts of the world, there is no such thing as personality. It’s all about whether you are flexible,” she says.

In class, students role-play and learn physical ways to show power. These include expanding one’s body to occupy as much space as possible — keeping legs apart or stretching an arm across the back of a chair. Direct eye contact is also an effective way to demonstrate authority, as is speaking slowly. “You’re not apologizing for the fact that you’re going to take up as much time as you need,” she says.

Acting this way can directly affect your emotions. A forthcoming study from Columbia University, for example, found that when people adopted these stances, their testosterone levels increased. The amount of cortisol, a stress hormone, in their bodies fell, and they reported feeling more powerful.

It doesn’t make sense for a manger to be hopped up with an inflated sense of power all of the time, of course. But these exercises can be useful to prepare oneself for certain situations, like a tense meeting or when delegating to staff. There are also times when adopting the opposite behaviour — crossing your legs, closing your body off, and smiling more often — is appropriate, such as in a job interview, since it acknowledges the other party’s authority.

The whole exercise may sound Machiavellian, but studies suggest people are generally comfortable with social hierarchies in the workplace. For example, Gruenfeld’s colleague asked pairs of participants to engage in conversation, and found many unconsciously complemented one another’s body language: when one adopted an authoritative pose, the other became more submissive. Later, when asked to rate the interaction, those who unknowingly fell into social hierarchies were more likely to say the conversation went well.

Acting the part of a powerful person won’t always convince others of your authority, of course, but at the very least it will affect your own mindset, and perhaps lead to greater confidence at work. “The biggest impact of what you’re doing is not on how you come across,” Gruenfeld says. “It’s on how you feel.”