Book Report: Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges

Amy Cuddy - PresenceIf you’re a reader of this site, you’re likely to have watched Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power poses. This book expands on that, and is filled with fascinating insights into recent social science. I read the book after seeing Cuddy talk at Philadelphia Free Library’s Leading Voices. (You can listen to the podcast here.)
I was interested in the talk and the book largely because I’ve recently been spending a lot of time thinking about interviewing and hiring through the lens of building a more diverse team. One of the things I was hoping to get out of the book were some ideas for helping those from underrepresented communities in technology be more “present” during interviews. I certainly benefited from the ideas Cuddy presented in her TED talk when applying for my current job, and I shared the ideas with my daughter right before she kicked ass on the SATs. When I think about applying this from the other side of the interview, I have this vision of saying, “Okay, now stand in this room like Wonder Woman for 2 minutes, and I’ll be right back so we can begin.” Fun as the image may be, of course it would be far to socially jarring to actually work in an interview situation.
Why is it important to me to figure out how to put someone interviewing to work on my team at ease? Cuddy explains that better than I could:

Research shows that in pressure-filled situations, when we are distracted by thinking about possible outcomes of our performance, our skills are measurably diminished. When we explicitly monitor ourselves, second by second, any task that requires memory and focused attention will suffer. We don’t have enough intellectual bandwidth to perform at our best and simultaneously critique our performance. Instead we’re caught in a faulty circuit of trying to anticipate, read, interpret, and reinterpret how other people are judging us, all of which prevents us from noticing and interpreting what’s actually happening in the situation. This dynamic, which psychologists refer to as self-monitoring, is significantly higher for people who experience impostor fears. It takes us out of ourselves. It stands in the way of our presence.

So given that we know that interviewing is one of the most pressure-filled situations, what can we do when interviewing to break that faulty circuit? Here’s one useful thought from the book:

Pamela Smith, a professor of management at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego, and [Adam] Galinsky have demonstrated in their research that power often operates at a nonconscious level, meaning that it can be activated without our knowledge — turned on like a switch — and can affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in ways we’re not even aware of. That’s good news. It means we don’t need to wear a crown to feel powerful, and we don’t have to plot and strategize ways to deploy our power in order to reap its benefits.
Recall a moment when you felt personally powerful. A time when you felt fully in control of your own psychological state — when you had the confidence to act based on your boldest, most sincere self, with the sense that your actions would be effective. Maybe it was at work, at school, at home, or in some other part of your life. Take a few minutes right now to remember and reflect on that experience of your personal power, on how it felt.
It felt good, right? Whether you know it or not, you’ve just been primed. Thanks to that little exercise, your psychological state was, and likely still is, infused with feelings of confidence and strength.

How simple would it be to start an interview with a question like “Tell me the professional accomplishment that has made you the most proud?” If that should prime someone to feel more confident, and have a better conversation? Well, chances are, you’re going to have a much better conversation.
During Cuddy’s talk, I asked her whether there was any research on how an interviewer could improve a candidate’s confidence through body language (you can here her response at about 1:08 in the podcast). She offered three concrete suggestions. “Come out from behind the desk… Be aware that your presence is really intimidating… so make sure that you’re not using that big expansive body language… Listen for whether they’re telling you everything they want to tell you… Ask, ‘Is there something else you’d like me to know about you?'”
The book offers another, related interviewing tip on the importance of warmth and openness in our body language:

In a famous 1974 paper, Princeton psychologists presented a pair of experiments on the self-fulfilling power of body language. The researchers wanted to know if white college admissions officers were unconsciously adopting cold, disengaged, and discouraging body postures (e.g., orienting their bodies away from the applicants, crossing their arms, not nodding) when interviewing black applicants, and, if so, how these postures might affect the applicants’ interview performance. In the first experiment, white interviewers were randomly assigned to interview either black or white applicants. Indeed, when interviewing the black applicants, white interviewers used cold, disengaged body language, and the black applicants were perceived to have performed more poorly in the interviews than the white applicants. In the second experiment, trained white job interviewers were split into two groups and instructed to use either cold, disengaged body language or warm, engaged body language. They were then randomly assigned to interview either black or white applicants. The black applicants performed as well as the white applicants when their interviewers exhibited warm, engaged body language. And applicants of both races performed equally poorly when their interviewers behaved in a cold, uninterested way.
Furthermore, in both cases, the applicants’ body language matched that of the interviewers; they were unconsciously mimicking what the interviewers did, which is what we usually do in social settings. In short, our body language, which is often based on prejudices, shapes the body language of the people we’re interacting with. If we expect others to perform poorly, we adopt body language that is off-putting and discouraging. Naturally, people take the hint and respond as expected — poorly. How could anyone ace an interview under those circumstances?
When our body language is confident and open, other people respond in kind, unconsciously reinforcing not only their perception of us but also our perception of ourselves.

Again, simple — remember to lean in towards the speaker and pay close attention. Nod or vocalize encouragement when appropriate. Orient your body towards the speaker. If you’ve been put in the position of interviewing candidates, hopefully you understand how to do these things in a way that feels natural. Essentially, treat the conversation as if you’re going to find it deeply fascinating, and chances are, you will.
The book offers far more than some useful insights into interviewing; it’s filled with research that will spark your imagination: after reading about research into risk-taking after assuming power poses (spoiler: it goes up) I became worried about what casinos might be able to do with that research. After reading about how her research has been applied to horse training(!) I’ve been debating conducting some research on our pets.
Cuddy has filled the book with the personal stories of many people who have been inspired to reach out to her and explain how her TED talk has changed their lives. While these stories provide a good bit of the heart and soul of the book, at times this feels a bit overwhelming (especially in the final chapter, which is essentially a collection of these stories). Very strongly, the same warmth, humor, and personal experiences that compelled us all to share Cuddy’s TED talk come across on almost every page of this book. It’s well worth the read.
Update:FiveThirtyEight has published an interesting article on problems in reproducibility which talks about Cuddy’s research quite a bit.

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