During a break in a seminar I was conducting on collaborative leadership, a man from the audience told this story:
“My wife is an attorney and I’ve always been a supporter of women in the workplace. I also believe in collaboration and try to make everyone feel included and appreciated. So I was taken aback when a woman on my management team said that I didn’t value her opinion. I assured her that I valued and relied on her insights and had often told her so. But then I got curious and asked her what I was doing that made the opposite impression. She said, ‘In meetings, you don’t look at me when I speak.’”
Then, he said, “My question to you is, how could this one small non-verbal cue have had such a powerful impact?”
His inquiry was well timed because the topic I was about to cover was the body language of collaborative leaders.
Our brains are hardwired to respond instantly to certain non-verbal cues – that circuitry was put in place a long time ago – when our ancient ancestors faced threats and challenges very different from those we face today.
For example, in prehistory, it may have been vitally important to see an approaching person’s hands in order to evaluate his intent. If hands were concealed, they could hold a rock, a club or other means of doing us harm. In interactions today, with no logical reason, you will instinctively mistrust me if my hands stay out of sight – shoved in my pockets or clasped behind my back.
The world has changed but our body-reading processes are still based on a primitive emotional reaction. Today, the potential threats (and our brains are always on the alert for potential threats) are to our ego, self-esteem, and identity. We’re especially vulnerable in our desire to be included, feel valued, and belong. This is why collaborative leaders need to be aware of their body language.
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In any interaction, you’re communicating over two channels – verbal and non-verbal – resulting in two distinct conversations going on at once. What my audience member underestimated was the power of alignment: the spoken word needs to be aligned with body language that supports it. When this alignment doesn’t occur, the other person has to choose between the words and the body language. Almost always, she will believe the non-verbal message.
There are two sets of body-language cues that people instinctively look for in leaders. One projects warmth and caring, and the other signals power and status. Both are necessary for leaders today, but, for a chief collaborator, the warmer side of non-verbal communication (which has been undervalued and underutilized by leaders more concerned with projecting strength, status and authority) becomes central to creating the most collaborative workforce relationships.
When you use warm, pro-social body language with all team members, you create an emotionally rich environment that supports collaboration and high performance. Here are some examples:
A genuine smile not only stimulates your sense of well-being. It also tells those around you that you’re approachable, co-operative and trustworthy. A genuine smile comes on slowly, crinkles the eyes, lights up the face and fades away slowly. A fake or polite smile comes on quickly and never reaches the eyes.
Since collaboration depends on participants’ willingness to speak up and share ideas and insights, try using your head – literally. Research shows that you can increase participation by nodding your head with clusters of three nods at regular intervals.
Head tilting also signals that you’re interested, curious and involved. The head tilt is a universal gesture of giving the other person an ear. Head tilts can be very positive cues when you want to encourage people to expand on their comments.
And, as the man in my audience found out, one of the most powerful motivators to encourage participation is eye contact because people feel they have your attention and interest as long as you’re looking at them. As a leader, you set the tone for the meeting. If you want people to speak up, focus on whoever is talking to make sure that they feel you’re listening.
When talking with someone we like or are interested in, we subconsciously switch our body posture to match that of the other person – mirroring their non-verbal behaviour. When you synchronize your body language with members of your team, you signal that you’re connected and engaged.
You look more receptive when you uncross your legs and hold your arms comfortably away from your body (not folded across your chest or tight into your waist) with palms exposed or hands resting on the desk or conference table.
Positive attitudes toward others tend to be accompanied by leaning forward – especially when sitting down. When two people like each other, you’ll see them both lean in. Research also shows that individuals who lean forward tend to increase the verbal output of the person they’re speaking with. Also, face people directly. Even a quarter turn away creates a barrier (the cold shoulder), signalling a lack of interest and causing the speaker to shut down.
Physical obstructions are especially detrimental to the effective exchange of ideas. Take away anything that blocks your view or forms a barrier between you and the rest of the team. Close your laptop, turn off your cellphone, put your purse or briefcase to the side.
If you think it makes you look more efficient (or important) to be continually checking a laptop or cellphone for messages, I’d advise you to think again. As one member of a management team recently told me, “There’s this senior exec in our department who has a reputation of being addicted to his smartphone – which is especially distracting during internal meetings. When he finally focuses on others, peers joke about his ‘coming back to earth.’ The result is that when he does contribute, he has little credibility.”
The bottom line is: If you really want to foster collaboration, make sure you look and act like you do!
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 STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.
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