Dominance and Deference in Pantomime

by Meredith Alexander Kunz

Humans may be the only creatures to use words, but they share another form of communication with the rest of the animal kingdom: body language. And while a gorilla’s chest beating and foot stamping are obvious dominance displays, human equivalents can be as subtle as a furrowed brow.


Assertive and deferential postures send messages that
can be more effective than words because they are less noticed.

People engage in nonverbal cues all the time. But how do those wrinkled brows impact a business meeting or a company’s org chart? That’s the focus of Business School Professor Larissa Tiedens’ recent research exploring body language and leadership. Tiedens’ insights can help people harness dominance displays to become better leaders. Because, she says, what you don’t know about nonverbal communication can hurt you.

Although people try to assert their superiority in many different ways, their nonverbal behavior is powerful simply because it affects people on a subconscious level, says Tiedens, who focuses on organizational behavior. People notice—and resent—verbal bullying, but outstretched arms and a wide stance do not register the same way. “It flies under the radar,” she says. “Nonverbal communication is not resisted as much because it’s less noticed.”

Tiedens has drawn on research by biologists who study the minimal organizations of the animal world, where forms of nonverbal communication can sway a group. The social behavior of primates and other species is “a great lens for thinking about what might be going on in human groups,” she says.

Biologists such as primate expert and Emory University Professor Frans de Waal have demonstrated the pervasiveness of hierarchy in animal societies. To understand whether human societies also tended to form dominant/submissive pairings and hierarchies as a result, Tiedens crafted experiments to see if she could observe similar behavior in human groups. In one experiment using pairs of subjects, one person was directed to behave in a dominant manner. This prompted the other partner to respond with submission. Tiedens also learned that subjects felt more satisfied with this hierarchical outcome than with a situation in which both partners were told to act dominant, creating a clash, or—interestingly—also more satisfied than in instances where both partners were asked to act submissive. So at least in some cases, hierarchy can breed contentment.

Tiedens’ research on nonverbal communication is informed by her interest in hierarchies generally.  Many people find the idea of power cascading down from the top too restrictive to the individual—and possibly undemocratic. But Tiedens points to hierarchy’s virtues.

“Hierarchies clarify roles, responsibilities, and division of labor, as well as increasing efficiency,” she says. In situations requiring cooperation, rather than competition, tasks are accomplished more quickly and easily in a hierarchy. Hierarchy does have a downside. “It can be bad for creativity,” she says, and in competitive situations, deference can be a problem.

But even if we try not to form a hierarchy, we’ll eventually do so, Tiedens says. In Silicon Valley, many companies boast of their “flat” power structures and claim their lack of hierarchy means that every employee gets a say. But as many who’ve worked in these startups have found, an informal hierarchy soon takes root. Body language and physical interactions can create “natural” leaders in a group, she says. Such hierarchies may not benefit the company, however, because they’re developed without any rational thought. Thus, awareness of dominance in the workplace is key to defeating unwanted “power moves.”

Examples of dominant human behavior include physical positions that take up a lot of space or make a person look bigger. For instance, stretching arms out to one’s sides or placing them on one’s hips; extending legs or widening knees in standing or seated positions; and standing or sitting on a table while other people sit lower down are all dominance displays. Some facial expressions are perceived as dominant, especially those that are angry, like eyebrows drawn across the face in a long, thick line.

These kinds of nonverbal cues show up everywhere in human society. Posters depicting Uncle Sam’s tall hat and lanky body, along with his serious brow and pointed finger, urged people to volunteer for the Army or buy war bonds, for instance. Famous examples of experts using dominant behavior include Lyndon Johnson, who towered over cowering senators, and Donald Trump, whose trademark “you’re fired” seems extra-powerful because of his furrowed brow and sharply pointed index finger. Tiedens also has conducted research showing that people who viewed tapes of Bill Clinton’s testimony during the Lewinsky investigation responded favorably to his angry fist pounding and finger wagging. Clinton’s fury seemed to lend him extra credibility.

Submissive displays run the gamut from head tilting, bowing, and nodding to demurely crossing ankles or pressing knees together. Raised eyebrows and parted lips are expectant—and submissive. Despite the common stereotype of a tough cop with crossed arms staring down a suspect, Tiedens explains that arm crossing is perceived as submissive because it makes a person look smaller and self-protective. Even the tone of voice expresses one’s dominance or submission: A firm, loud, and deep voice is more respected than a high-pitched or soft one.

If the nature of many of these dominant/submissive displays seems like received wisdom, that’s because in some ways it is. Historically, there is a long tradition of studying—and perfecting—physical postures to “get ahead” in social situations, says Thomas Freeland, a lecturer in oral communication at Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning. While the very earliest recorded instances of training in gestures to accompany speech took place in ancient Greece and Rome, early modern Europeans placed a new emphasis on grace and fluidity in physical postures. “Its origins are in fencing manuals,” he says. In early modern Europe, courtiers made a study of “using gesture and rhetoric as a means of self-defense and of presenting arguments,” he says. In the 19th century, French musician François Delsarte believed that spe-cific gestures and facial expressions could trigger universal emotional responses, and illustrated instruction manuals based on his method
circulated widely in Europe and the United States.

Yet despite its grounding in history and in the animal world, some find the dominant/submissive dichotomy in Tiedens’ work to be unnerving. For one thing, the gender implications are a concern: She acknowledges that dominant moves are more typically practiced by men, while submissive gestures are more often seen in women. But that’s not set in stone: “Women are socialized into this behavior,” she says. And while it may be socially unacceptable for women to sit with legs wide, for example, they may be able to compensate in other ways.

To understand the gender issues better, Tiedens points to other scholars’ examinations of the difference between how men and women use dominance. Laurie Rudman of Rutgers University studied verbal exchanges rather than body language and found that when a woman made an aggressive speech, for example, she was less likely to be chosen for a new job. That effect was cancelled out, however, when a woman added language indicating that she cared about people and their needs.

Conveying dominance can be dangerous not only for women. There are situations in which dominance should be avoided, Tiedens says, including job interviews, when an outsider is trying to join a new organization. That echoes the way animals behave: Newcomers to a tribe or group are expected to show submission, or else are rejected. However, in job promotion situations, she found, the opposite is true: Dominance can win you the job.

In addition to Tiedens’ spotlight on these topics, other Stanford faculty are exploring ways to teach students to use nonverbal com-munication to become better business leaders. Professor Deborah Gruenfeld is developing a new elective, Acting with Power, designed to help MBA students tap into the craft of acting to project their authority. Gruenfeld says acting can be an effective tool for business students because it “involves using your voice, body, and your mind to alter yourself to play a particular role.” Freeland—a trained actor—also offers a quarterly workshop as part of the Business School’s Management Communication Program that shows students how to take charge of their voices and to use gestures more effectively when speaking.

Tiedens says she has reexamined her own behavior since she began investigating this topic. She has worked on her linguistic patterns, tempering ones that seem overly deferential. And she makes an effort to appear larger—and thus more powerful. “I try not to stand in a small way,” she says.

And that made a huge difference. Because in the business world, harnessing the potential of body language is not just about a person’s inborn size or strength—anybody can take advantage of these subtle “power moves” to help level the playing field.