Many people perceive that they have low status, and have the mindset of being powerless; this exercise helps them learn that they can take action to transform their mindset, as well as transform their circumstances. In the fun role-playing activity, two people - one with high status and one with low status - exchange power

Group Size
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  1. Ask for two volunteers from the audience to perform a role-play in front of everyone.
  2. When the two people come forward, ask the audience to shout out a situation in which one of the people is high-status and the other is low-status. For example, we have had suggestions of a wealthy aristocrat and her personal butler; or of a parent and a child; or even a professor and a student.
  3. Choose which person is going to play the high-status role, and which person will play the low-status role. Allow them to act out a scene for a minute or two in which the hierarchy is clear. For example, the student might be meekly approaching the professor, plaintively asking for a higher grade on an essay. It’s clear who has the power, and who does not. But the next step is what makes this exercise so intriguing, and such a crowd-pleaser:
  4. After a minute or two, you stop the performance. Now you have the low-status person act as if she has high status, and vice versa. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the person who played the student will now switch roles and play the professor. It means that the student will now act powerfully, and the professor will act as if she has low status.
  5. If you wish, you can have them switch who is high-status and who is low-status multiple times. It can be quite funny, but it also leads into a powerful debrief…
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After the role-playing comes to a finish, you can ask everyone how it felt.

Here’s the main point to get across in the discussion that follows: Whether we act low-status or high-status is up to us. As Harvard professor Amy Cuddy writes in her book Presence, “whether we feel powerful or powerless has huge consequences in our lives.”

What’s notable is that in all the scientific studies, it is very easy for researchers to make people feel powerless or powerful. In many studies, the scientists prime people unconsciously by exposing them to words – either those that connote power (e.g., control, command, authority) or its absence (e.g., yield, obey, subordinate.) The people in these studies don’t even realize that they are being made to feel powerful or powerless. But their actions are very different depending on how they are primed.

Even assigning someone to be a boss or employee in a hypothetical scenario can make a measurable difference. Afterwards, people act as if they had power (the boss) or were relatively impotent (the employee). In sum, our mindset greatly affects how we act in the world. Whether we are hopeless and helpless is up to us; it’s all a matter of our interpretation. We can choose to be powerful.


Columbia professor Adam Galinsky and Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner are among the leading researchers on this phenomenon. They have done numerous studies that show that we can choose to feel – and act – powerfully, and it has significant consequences. People who are primed to feel more powerful have better reactions, even when they are confronted with stress, rejection, negativity, and physical pain. They are more likely to be proactive, be decisive, and take action.


Transformative Action Institute, based on popular improv activity

Additional Readings

Magee, J.C. and Galinsky A. (2008) Social hierarchy: The self-reinforcing nature of power and status. The Academy of Management Annals, 2, 351-398.