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Executive Presence: Playing High and Playing Low

Executive Presence: Playing High and Playing Low

In this video, Deborah Gruenfeld explains her body language research with individuals assuming powerful and powerless stances. She refers to these stances as Playing High and Playing Low.

This video and the description below will help you understand the importance of executive presence as you begin to perfect your own executive presence.

In Gruenfeld’s description, Playing High means you show your authority, power and influence. When you do so, others tend to defer to you.

  • You stand up straight and speak with authority - You are relaxed, open, and expansive. You take up more space in the room mentally and physically.
  • When speaking, your head remains perfectly still and you speak in complete sentences. You hold eye contact a little longer than normal.
  • When you walk, you tend to flow into other people's spaces. You assume others will move out of your path.
  • When others address you, you may look around, check your phone and/or show no visible reaction. You may interrupt before you know what you will say.

You use this body language when you need to reinforce your actual rank or when status is up for grabs. Sometimes people play higher than their actual rank as they attempt to move up in an organization.


There are good and bad aspects of playing high. When used appropriately, you can accomplish your goals and make others feel safe and protected, and you are more likely to get what you want. When used inappropriately, you can appear tyrannical, ruthless, uncaring or unconcerned about people around you. You may not appear open to relationships and close off opportunities for collaboration.

Playing low means you are more approachable and likable. You show deference to other people. This is the basis of building rapport. These are the characteristics of Playing Low:

  • Hold your body close and tight as if hiding or shrinking.
  • Lean forward and round your shoulders.
  • Speak in incomplete sentences.
  • Use fleeting and jerky movements.
  • Glance at another person and then look away as if making sure what you said or did was OK
  • Smile more frequently because its your job to make others feel comfortable.

It is possible to build stronger relationships in body dispositions that play low. You are more likable and approachable. However, it is possible to lose credibility or power, and it is possible to appear weak, flighty or flirtatious.

There are variations to Playing High and Playing Low that depend on slight changes in where you direct your energy and how you use your hands, eyes or voice. In my Executive Presence Toolkit, I refer to authoritative body languages as the body of Stability and the body of Resolution. I also discuss body dispositions associated with Playing Low. They are the bodies of Connection, Flexibility and Nurturing.

Very interestingly, different body dispositions not only affect observers, but research shows that changing your own body affects you both physically and emotionally. Different body language affects both the listener and the speaker.

Researchers had subjects sit in expansive and then constricted postures for two minutes.  Expansive postures meant that they draped their arms over a chair, stretched out their legs, held their heads high, and looked around them. Restrictive postures meant that they sat with their hands under their thighs or between their knees. They bent over slightly and looked down.

At the end of two minutes, the subjects in expansive postures had different levels of testosterone and cortisol. The expansive postures increased their levels of testosterone (related to power and aggression) and reduced their levels of cortisol, which is related to stress and threats. The constricted postures reversed those hormone levels.

These are very significant findings for leaders who want to make a difference.

Would you like some practice activities? Click Here.

Are you generally aware of your physical presence? Do you know how to play high and play low? Do you consider when and how to change your physical presence? [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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