You tell your employees you’re open to ideas and welcome their questions. But you say so with your arms crossed as you lean away from them. Or you say it while checking your phone.
Your verbal language may invite them to come forward. But your body language is telling them to stay away.
“Body language always trumps content. Always,” said communications coach Nick Morgan, CEO of consulting firm Public Words and author of “Can You Hear Me?” and “Power Cues.”
“What your subordinates care about is your intent toward them. And we understand intent through body language,” Morgan noted.
Humans usually default to a negative bias when given conflicting signals or even neutral ones, such as not making eye contact when passing in a hall. That’s because we tend to be an anxious species, always on the lookout for the saber-toothed tiger behind the tree, he added.
Carole Kinsey Goman, a leadership presence coach and author of “The Silent Language of Leaders” and “The Nonverbal Advantage,” said she once worked with a male executive who made a point of advocating for women professionals.
So he was genuinely surprised, Goman noted, when a woman on his team told him, “You don’t value anything I say. You don’t look at me when I speak.”
“We’re always having a verbal and a nonverbal conversation,” she said. “That situation shows how one nonverbal signal can destroy an otherwise inclusive, high-trust situation.”
Align your body with your message
The higher up you are in an organization, the more critical it is that you don’t let your body language – including your tone of voice – undercut your message.
As a CEO or other high-level executive, you will always have too much on your mind. And unless you’re conscious about it, your body language will betray that.
You may make eye contact with someone but your feet are pointed toward the door or your body is turned away and you’re not fully focused on the other person, Morgan said. Add to that perpetually checking your phone when the other person is mid-sentence. It reads as indifference or dismissiveness.
When you know you’re going to be meeting with someone, or presenting to a group, Morgan recommends taking a moment to adjust your mindset and remind yourself to be open, to connect and to listen. Committing to that will influence your body language and, in turn, the receptiveness of your audience.
Since employees will be on the alert for any sign that indicates you don’t want to be approached or are in a bad mood, it pays to consciously tweak your body language if you want to communicate that you are open.
“You may be more comfortable standing with your arms folded across your chest. But don’t be surprised when others judge that gesture as resistant and unapproachable,” Goman said.
Hidden hands are also a primordial no-no because they make you look less trustworthy. “In our prehistory, when someone approached with hands out of view, it was a clear signal of potential danger,” Goman said.
You’re much more likely to engender trust if you not only leave your hands in view, but use palm up hand gestures when speaking, she noted.
Of course it’s impossible to be in full control of your body language all the time. Your employees who know your habits will definitely cut you some slack. But if you’re talking to an employee who is new to you, it pays to be a little more mindful of how you’re coming across.
“If they know your baseline, that’s one thing. But if [the employee] is new to the team then it can become intimidating,” Goman said.
Simple changes can elicit a positive response
If you want to encourage employees to say what’s on their mind or to feel more comfortable talking with you, nod your head at regular intervals when they speak, Goman said.
Avoid standing over them when they’re seated, and instead consider sitting down so you’re more on their level.
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And when you’re both standing, face the other person and make regular eye contact.
Being tall, though no fault of yours, can also be intimidating. Morgan said one way to reduce the height differential is to tilt your head when listening to someone.
It may also help to have short one-on-one conversations or very small group meetings with employees that are deliberately low key and informal, outside of your office.
Another effective way to unconsciously indicate you’re in alignment with someone else is to mirror that person’s body movements.
“When talking with someone we are interested in, we subconsciously switch our body posture to match that of the other person, signaling that we’re connected and engaged,” Goman said.