We live in an age of measurement. The sources and means of quantification appear limitless. As never before, significant aspects of our daily lives can be expressed in metrics. This can be favourable, of course. Rugby, for example, has become a pundit’s paradise with the aid of Ref Cam, Ref Link, the TMO and player tracking GPS systems. More seriously, the wide range of low-cost, miniature, wireless health monitoring devices offers self-evident benefits.

In the workplace, however, the advantages of more measurement, under the umbrella of performance management, can be accompanied by issues which question its true effectiveness. Are we really able to measure what we value? Do we risk simply measuring what we can measure and, instead, end up valuing what we can measure? Employees may feel uninspired by a process which focuses on a rear-facing annual score, based on criteria which appear divorced from their organisation’s greater purpose, rather than a constant, meaningful, developmental exchange.

One thing is true, though, in our overwhelmed economy. Pressure to perform, however assessed, is non-negotiable. Woody Allen’s cheery quote “80% of success is showing up” sounds increasingly hollow. Showing up is better that not showing up but woe betide us if, having arrived, we don’t deliver, smash it, knock it out of the park.

So, how do we be our best at all times of day and night? Step forward Harvard Business School professor and social psychologist Amy Cuddy.

I have just read her book Presence. Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, published over here last year. It’s great; brilliantly researched, hugely credible, absorbing, brimming with intelligence and personality.

I first encountered Amy (first-name terms already!) a few years ago when blogging about an unnamed former boss who excused his habitual cruel behaviour to less robust subordinates with the assertion that ‘life is not a popularity contest’. I had discovered her paper, written with Susan Fiske and Peter Click, entitled Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence. 

In short, when we meet someone for the first time, we must determine whether the other is friend or foe. We quickly ask two questions: ‘Can I trust this person?’ and ‘Can I respect this person?’ These two dimensions are described as warmth and competence respectively. Counter-intuitively perhaps, considerable evidence suggests that warmth judgments are primary. To quote from the report: “From an evolutionary perspective… another person’s intent for good or ill is more important than whether the other person can act on those intentions”.

Popularity may not carry all before it in business, therefore, but, citing a related Harvard Business Review piece in 2013, “warmth is the conduit of influence”. Ex-boss, you lose!

And so to Presence. I was truly captivated by some tangible principles on how, if we wish to, we can bring our authentic best selves to the inevitable daily challenges we face. Here are a few examples:

  • Presence is important. It enables us “to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values and potential”. For Cuddy, however, this is not a permanent, transcendent state (to be reached following a long pilgrimage). Rather presence “is a moment-to-moment phenomenon” which “comes through incremental change” and fits within the ordinary, everyday rhythm of our lives
  • Presence is about personal power, the ability to control our own human resources and behaviours. “It is infinite and does not require us to in any way control someone else”. The focus is less on the impression we are making on others (categorically this has nothing to do with extroversion) , more on the impression we are making on ourselves
  • “We can self-induce presence”. Our facial expressions, breathing, postures, gestures and movements can enhance our personal power. Extraordinarily, by expanding our bodies, adopting so-called “power poses”, we can increase our levels of testosterone (the assertiveness hormone) and reduce our levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). From a specific experiment, “…a simple bodily posture, held for just a couple of minutes, produces bigger feedback effects than being assigned to a powerful role…”
  • Body-mind changes avoid “the key psychological obstacles inherent in mind-mind interventions”. Somehow a tiny tweak like adjusting your posture or finding a space for some private power posing feel more attainable and potentially effective than telling yourself you’re confident when, right then, that’s the last thing you believe

The idea that corporeal experiences cause emotions, rather than the other way around, is not new but the passionate chronicling of how this thinking has developed, with the possibility of successful, liberating outcomes for us all, is the triumph of Amy Cuddy’s volume.

“Your body shapes you mind. Your mind shapes your behaviour. And your behaviour shapes your future. Let your body tell you that you’re powerful and deserving, and you become more present, enthusiastic, and authentically yourself”.

Posing that works. Fancy that!