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Be aware of the nonverbal signals you’re sending

Carol Kinsey GomanThere are two sets of body language cues that followers look for in leaders: warmth (empathy, likeability, caring) and authority (power, credibility, status). Although I know several leaders of both sexes who do not fit the stereotypes, I’ve also observed that gender differences in body language most often do align with these two groupings. Women are the champions in the warmth and empathy arena but lose out on power and authority cues.

All leaders are judged by their body language. If a woman wants to be perceived as powerful, credible, and confident, she has to be aware of the nonverbal signals she’s sending. I’ve seen women unknowingly employ several behaviours that reduce their authority by denoting vulnerability or submission. Here are 10 body language mistakes that women leaders commonly make.

1) They use too many head tilts. Head tilting is a signal that someone is listening and involved – and a particularly feminine gesture. Head tilts can be very positive cues, but they are also subconsciously processed as submission signals. Women who want to project power and authority should keep their heads straight up in a more neutral position.

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2) They physically condense. One way that status is nonverbally demonstrated in a business meeting is by physically taking up room. Lower-status, less-confident men (and most women) tend to pull in their bodies and minimize their size, while high-status males expand and take up space. So at your next meeting, spread out your belongings and claim your turf!

3) They act girlish. Everyone uses pacifying gestures when under stress. They rub their hands together, grab their upper arms, and touch their necks. But women are viewed as much less powerful when they pacify with girlish behaviours (twirling hair, playing with jewelry, or biting a finger.)

4) They smile excessively. While smiling can be a powerful and positive nonverbal cue – especially for signalling likeability and friendliness – women should be aware that, when excessive or inappropriate, smiling can also be confusing and a credibility robber. This is especially true if you smile while discussing a serious subject, expressing anger, or giving negative feedback.

5) They nod too much. When a man nods, it means he agrees. When a woman nods, it means she agrees – or is listening to, empathizing with, or encouraging the speaker to continue. This excessive head nodding can make females look like a bobble-head doll. Constant head nodding can express encouragement and engagement, but not authority and power.

6) They speak “up.” Women’s voices often rise at the ends of sentences as if they’re asking a question or asking for approval. When stating your opinion, be sure to use the authoritative arc, in which your voice starts on one note, rises in pitch through the sentence and drops back down at the end.

7) They wait their turn. In negotiations, men talk more than women and interrupt more frequently. One perspective on the value of speaking up comes from former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who – when asked what advice she had for up-and-coming professional women – replied, “Learn to interrupt.”

8) They are overly expressive. While a certain amount of movement and animation adds passion and meaning to a message, women who express the entire spectrum of emotions often overwhelm their audience (especially if the audience is comprised primarily of males). So in situations where you want to maximize your authority – minimize your movements. When you appear calm and contained, you look more powerful.

9) They have a delicate handshake. Women with a weak handshake are judged to be passive and less confident. So take the time to cultivate your “professional shake.” Keep your body squared off to the other person – facing him or her fully. Make sure you have palm-to-palm contact and that the web of your hand (the skin between your thumb and first finger) touches the web of the other person’s. And, most of all, remember to shake hands firmly.

10. They flirt. Women gain likeability but lose the competitive advantage in a negotiation when they flirt. In a University of California Berkeley study, female actors play the roles of sellers of a biotech business. Half were told to project a no-nonsense business approach. Half were instructed to flirt (using the nonverbal behaviours of smiling, leaning forward suggestively, tossing their hair, etc.) – but to do so subtly. The outcome was that the “buyers” offered the flirts (dubbed “likeable losers”) 20 percent less, on average, than what they offered the more straitlaced sellers.

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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