TED-talk icon Amy Cuddy on how leaders can reclaim presence and power at work TED-talk icon Amy Cuddy on how leaders can reclaim presence and power at work
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March 22, 2022

TED-talk icon Amy Cuddy on how leaders can reclaim presence and power at work

In brief
  • Amy Cuddy believes that the pandemic has sapped our confidence, and we need to find a way to be present, revitalized, and powerful again.

  • Her transformative approach draws on research, her personal philosophy, and her expertise in how body language affects how we act.

  • Amy offers a roadmap to regaining your power as an individual and a leader.

Acertitude Co-Founder and Managing Partner Kevin O’Neill had the distinct pleasure of sitting down for a fireside chat with social psychologist, bestselling author, and world leader on body language, Dr. Amy Cuddy, at the 2021 World Business Forum. Renowned for having the second-most-viewed TED Talk of all time, Amy’s video was named by The Guardian as “One of 20 Online Talks that Could Change Your Life.”

In her conversation with Kevin, Amy shared her enthralling perspective on dealing with the ongoing pandemic that she feels hasn’t just challenged our resilience, but has undermined our agency, control, and power. Her insights are essential reading for leaders who want to learn how to harness their personal power. 

How can you emerge from a crisis feeling stronger?

After the upheaval of the past few years, Amy believes we can find a way to be present and powerful again. She defines “presence” as the ability to “approach difficult situations with composure, execute with calm confidence, and leave with satisfaction…when you’re attuned to and able to easily access and express your authentic best self.” This contrasts with the anxiety and distraction you might feel in a stressful situation as a result of thinking too much about the past or what might happen in the future. “In those moments we lack power,” said Amy. “Obviously we feel more stressed when we’re in a challenging situation with someone with more power over us. But I’m not talking about social power, I’m talking about personal power.”

Personal power is the key to presence

Amy defines personal power as the ability to control our own behavior and state of mind. She believes it’s something we can all grow, citing experiments that have found that personal power activates what psychologists call the “approach system,” where our body and brain tell us that we’re safe. In her words, personal power “makes us more optimistic, more open, more creative, more cognitively agile…we’re able to listen to others because we’re not threatened by them. We’re more generous…we’re able to act. We are present.” Powerlessness has the opposite effect, activating the “inhibition system,” which signals that we’re in a threatening situation. 

“You can have a lot of personal power and it takes nothing from anyone else. In fact, the more personal power you have, the more likely you are to inspire others to have personal power.”

How has the pandemic impacted our sense of power? 

Amy drew on studies of combat soldiers to describe what we’re going through. The first of three key phases, the emergency phase is concerned with an urgent threat. “People are on the same page, teams are working together, energy is high,” said Amy. But after the initial battle we enter a regression phase, characterized by uncertainty. “That regression phase looks a lot like powerlessness,” Amy added. She believes that’s because our “surge capacity,” the adaptive systems that we draw on for short-term survival, has become depleted. To get to the recovery and rebuilding stage, we need a renewed sense of personal power. What’s been complicating this is that the pandemic is not a linear crisis: “We’re straddling this line between threatened and safe, but the line keeps moving.” All of us have lost, to some extent, the power to control our lives. “We must restore this power in order to re-emerge,” Amy said.

Making a fresh start

Leaders can help introduce a sense of clarity by choosing a new “Day One,” where workers can get excited about new projects. The same fresh start approach for individuals could mean focusing on aspects of life you can control, such as healthy eating or exercise. And to recharge your depleted surge capacity, take a break from stimuli that are overwhelming you and take time to do things you enjoy. Amy wants leaders to think of this as a time for renewal and regrowth, not for fast-paced progress. Slowing down and communicating thoughtfully can help, as can paying attention to small improvements, such as creating a more comfortable or calming office. When it comes to dealing with loss of power, she advocates listening to what employees say about how they work best, and consider how to accommodate this.

“Do things that will fill your soul. See the people that you care about. Set up your workspace in a way that works for you. Exert some control over your life. Even if you can't control the big things, find the small things that you can.”

The way you carry yourself matters

As an expert on body language, Amy feels that the lack of control we’ve been experiencing is causing us to shrink physically, which makes us feel more powerless. The way to combat that boils down to expanding versus contracting. “That’s the dimension that’s related to power. Your body and mind are constantly in conversation...individuals with power, or who are trying to signal power, expand.” For example, athletes who feel powerful in winning throw their arms in the air and unconsciously make themselves look bigger. Those on a losing team contract and make themselves smaller. But Amy believes you can reverse engineer feeling powerful by being mindful of the way you breathe, speak, sit and move.

“Adopting expansive breathing, speaking, posture and movement makes people feel powerful, confident, assertive, relaxed, even happy.”

Using your body to change your mind

Amy’s own research shows that people who adopt an expansive posture, or power pose, immediately before mock job interviews are more likely to get good feedback. It wasn’t the quality of their answers as much as they way they projected confidence. Similarly, people who adopt an expansive posture before exercising lift heavier weights, and judge what they lift as lighter than people who’d adopt a shrunken pose. As Amy said, “Your body is changing your mind, your mind is changing your behavior, and your behavior is changing your outcomes.” 

Amy believes having deeper insight into our own power and presence helps us tap into it. Her approach galvanizes us into inner transformation, and it’s her compelling blend of research, brilliant insight and practical applications that have made Amy a force to be reckoned with.  Taking some of the steps she recommends could allow you to feel more powerful too, helping you grow and flourish, even in challenging times.