It worked. He could almost feel his stress level lowering and his self-confidence rising.
By the time he strode into the conference room, took his place at the head of the table and made strong eye contact with all the participants, Adam exuded authority, power and status.
Eve was at a different meeting. Naturally empathetic and likable, Eve smiled a lot, nodded to encourage others to continue speaking and tilted her head in the universal sign of giving someone your ear. She waited politely before offering her own thoughts and when she did, she spoke in a soft, warm voice.
Adam’s leadership assignment was to facilitate a highly collaborative meeting in which all team members were expected to share insights and concerns about a project.
Eve’s meeting was her first strategy session with senior leaders, It was an opportunity to enhance her leadership presence by being perceived as credible and competent.
Both Adam and Eve exhibited good leadership body language. Both made bad choices.
In the workplace, we continuously and unconsciously assess leaders for two distinct sets of non-verbal signals:
- Warmth, likablilty, empathy.
- Authority, power, status.
Obviously, blending the right amount of warmth and authority is the secret sauce of leadership effectiveness. There are situations when emphasizing one set of signals over the other gives you an advantage.
Power and status are displayed in height and space. The ability to project authority is a body language strength. But, like any strength, when overused or inappropriately used, it can become a liability. And it’s easy for status signals to slip into signs of arrogance.
For example, a non-verbal signal of confidence is to hold your head up – but if you tilt your head back even slightly, the signal changes to an arrogant sign of looking down your nose.
Body language signals of warmth are assessed almost instantly, as people check to see if you’re friend or foe – or, in a corporate setting, whether you have their interests at heart – even before they care about your level of competence and confidence. If your status signals are too strong, you can come across as uncaring and insensitive.
When it comes to facilitating collaborative teams and building high-trust work environments, high-status behaviours can undermine your efforts. If you act like the boss who has all the answers, why would anyone else need – or dare – to contribute?
Adam would have been more effective if he’d looked more inclusive and less in charge. He might have taken a seat in the middle of the table instead of the power position at the end. He could have remembered to smile more, nod and turn his entire body toward whomever spoke, silently indicating he was giving others his full attention because their contributions mattered.
Eve faced an entirely different situation, and the very cues that might have been so helpful to Adam were detrimental for her.
Warm body language – including head tilts, nods and forward leans – definitely send signals of friendliness, interest and inclusion. But excessive or inappropriate warm signals can also be confusing and a credibility robber. Even a smile (the most positive display of warmth) can work against you if you smile too much when delivering a serious message or stating an objection.
There are also cases where warm cues can make you look submissive – which is not the best image to project in a meeting where your goal is to impress executives with your confidence and expertise.
Eve’s head tilts worked well when she wanted to demonstrate interest in other members of the team. But when she stated her own opinions, she would have been wiser to keep her head straight up in a more authoritative position. Her soft-spoken responses also worked against her, lessening the impact of her comments. She needed to speak in a stronger voice if she wanted her remarks to reflect genuine competence.
High-powered or confident body language is expansive. When you manifest powerful body language, you’re seen as more influential. Remember that if you stand, you’ll look more powerful to those seated. If you move around, the additional space you take up adds to that impression. If you’re sitting, you can still project power by sitting straight with both feet on the floor (making you look and feel grounded) and by spreading out your belongings on the conference table to claim more territory.
Body language affects the way others see you and the way you see yourself. To make sure your good body language doesn’t go bad, understand what’s at stake in any situation and adjust accordingly.
If you want to be evaluated as authoritative, make sure your body reinforces that message. If you want to encourage others to speak, use warmer non-verbal signals to bolster collaboration.
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead.
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