The vice president of a Fortune 500 company is speaking at a leadership conference. He’s a polished presenter with an impressive selection of organizational “war stories” delivered with a charming, self-deprecating sense of humor.
The audience likes him. They like him a lot.
Then, as he finishes his comments, he folds his arms across his chest and says, “I’m open for questions. Please, ask me anything.”Suddenly, there is a shift of energy in the room – from engagement to uncertainty.
The audience that was so attentive only moments ago is now somehow disconnected and unable to think of anything to ask.
I was at that event. As one of the presenters scheduled to follow the executive, I was seated at a table onstage with a clear view of the entire room. And the minute I saw that single gesture, I knew exactly how the audience would react.
Later I talked with the speaker (who didn’t realize he’d crossed his arms) and interviewed members of the audience (none of whom recalled the gesture, but all of whom remembered struggling to come up with a question).
How body language affects managers
So what happened – how could a simple arm movement that none of the participants were even aware of have had such a potent impact? And what does this mean to you as a manager?
Business relationships are all about communication. You already know that. In preparing for an important meeting – with your staff, boss, or clients – you concentrate on what to say, memorize crucial points, and rehearse your presentation so that you will come across as credible and convincing.
But did you also know that the people you’re speaking to will be subliminally evaluating your credibility, confidence, likeability and trustworthiness – and that their evaluation will be only partially determined by what you say?
Did you know that your use of personal space, physical gestures, posture, facial expressions and eye contact could enhance, support, weaken or even sabotage your message?
The executive who addressed that conference in New York made a basic body language blunder when his gesture didn’t match his words.
And it is this kind of misaligned signaling that your staff or team will also pick up on more quickly and critically than almost any other.
When your nonverbal signals conflict with verbal statements (for example, dropping eye contact and glancing around the room while stating you are being candid, rocking back on your heels when talking about the project’s solid future or – like the VP -- folding your arms while stating you are open to questions) you send mixed messages.
If forced to choose between what you said, and how you looked when saying it, people will discount the verbal content and, instead, believe what they saw.
But why did the executive make that gesture? Did he not want questions? Was he more comfortable standing that way? Was he cold?
I didn’t ask him, because it really didn’t matter.
It never does.
Nonverbal communication speaks volumes
With nonverbal communication, it’s not how the sender feels that matters most; it is how the observer perceives how the sender feels.
And crossing arms is almost always perceived as a closed sign of resistance. That’s why your nonverbal signals don’t always convey what you intended them to.
If you pass a colleague in the hallway and don’t make eye contact, she may jump to the conclusion that you are upset with the report she just turned in.
You may be slouching because you’re tired, but your team will read it as a sign of disinterest. If you frown in a staff meeting, attendees will probably think you didn’t like what you just heard – and they will keep their opinions to themselves.
In fact, when you make any nonverbal display of anger, irritability, or annoyance, people are more likely to hold back their ideas, limit their comments, and look for ways to shorten their interaction with you.
And, by the way, since the human brain pays more attention to negative messages than it does to positive ones, what people unconsciously look for and react to the most, are signs that you are in a bad mood or are not to be approached.
Definition of body language
Body language is the management of time, space, appearance, posture, gesture, touch, expression, eye contact, and vocal prosody.
As such, nonverbal communication is a key part of your effectiveness as a manager. From a body language perspective, effective managers send two sets of signals. Both are very important, but they are each more important under certain circumstances.
For example, powerful people sit, stand, walk and gesture in ways that exude confidence, competence and status.
These are the kind of signal leaders might want to send when addressing the Board of Directors. Leaders send power and authority signals by standing tall, actually expanding into space.
You will notice, for instance, that high-status male executives at a conference table are likely to spread out their paperwork. They may put their arms on the back of other people’s chairs and even sit with their legs far apart.
But the most effective leaders also send nonverbal signals of warmth and empathy – especially when nurturing collaborative environments and managing change. The nonverbal signals that convey inclusiveness, likeability, and friendliness include open palm gestures, leaning slightly forward, giving people eye contact when they talk, nodding your head when someone is speaking, or tilting your head slightly to encourage them to speak more.
Since most of my clients are in organizations that are trying to move from a hierarchical command control structure to a flatter, more nimble, and more collaborative environment, I see a lot of senior managers who run into body language challenges.
They are so used to having to project a strong persona that they don’t realize the power of letting the other set of (empathy) signals take over.
Of course, learning to align body language with intents and messages is only one side of the nonverbal coin.
More business executives are learning not only how to send the right signals, but also how to read them.
Peter Drucker, the renowned author, professor and management consultant, understood this clearly:
The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said.Peter Drucker
In a meeting, when people aren’t completely onboard with an initiative, leaders need to be able to recognize what’s happening – and to respond quickly.
During the hiring process, the ability to read nonverbal cues can make the difference between a great hire and a big mistake. And knowing when a negotiating partner is bluffing is a skill well worth developing.
Good body language skills can help your executives influence and motivate direct reports, improve productivity, bond with audiences, present ideas with more authority and impact, and authentically project their personal brand of charisma. That’s a powerful set of skills for any leader to develop.
Do leaders in your office have bad body language?
Do you think they can do a better job of being more open and have better communication with employees? If it's something that's a little taboo to talk about within your organization, just use an anonymous feedback tool like Officevibe in order to address the situation.
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