How Nonverbal Behaviors Affect Your Status and Power

When you need to make an impact in a work meeting or presentation, you should focus less on what you’re going to say and more on how you say it. People judge us in less than 100 milliseconds based on our body language, according to Professor Deborah Gruenfeld.

But making subtle physical changes can have a big effect on your perceived power and status. In some situations you want to appear authoritative and show you are in charge, like when giving a presentation. Other times you may need to appear approachable and make others feel good about themselves, for example by telling a self-deprecating joke during a meeting. Both are sources of power. So what can you do with your body to send a message that you are powerfully authoritative or approachable? The physical language of authority is called “playing high,” while the body language of approachability is known as “playing low.”

People who “play high” often exhibit these behaviors:

  • Holding their heads still
  • Speaking in complete sentences with a clear beginning and end
  • Holding eye contact while talking
  • Using great, sweeping gestures
  • Occupying maximum space
  • Leaning back
  • Slowing down when speaking

People who “play low” hold their bodies in these ways:

  • Placing their hands near their face while speaking
  • Speaking in incomplete sentences
  • Glancing around or looking away
  • Using jerky, fleeting movements
  • Taking up as little space as possible
  • Leaning forward
  • Sounding breathless

You can’t play high and low at the same time, but you should be able to move fluently between the two depending on the situation. Reading the group dynamics is key. “The only certain way to attain status and power that lasts is to repeatedly do what is best for the group,” believes Gruenfeld. For more insights on acting with power, sign up to view the full recorded video of Gruenfeld’s recent webinar.

The above lists of behaviors associated with “playing high” and “playing low” come from Keith Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre.


"Words account for 7% of what they take away, while body language counts for 55%."

Power and Influence by a Deborah Gruenfeld, a Stanford Business Professor.

People determine if you are competent or not in less than 100 milliseconds. In this video, Professor Deborah Gruenfeld explores the way our body language influences how others view us:

Watch more faculty videos from the Voice & Influence program by Stanford’s Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research and Lean In