He had assembled a multi-level, multi-functional group – a diagonal slice of 30 people from across the organization – and had taken them off-site for two days to co-create the necessary steps for achieving the company’s new strategic plan. The hope was that collaboration and knowledge sharing would begin at this meeting and expand from here into every department.
It wouldn’t be easy. The theme “we’re all in this together” was already a touchy subject as the employees knew there would be cutbacks in spending and employee numbers. Few expected that “together” meant that executives would also be asked to cut costs and reduce their ranks.
But despite some initial reluctance on the part of the attendees, the first day had gotten off to a good start. Told to come dressed comfortably, most people were in jeans or slacks with polo or tee shirts. Consultants hired to facilitate the event had done a good job warming up the group and helping them begin to bond.
Then he came in to lead the meeting. And from the moment he walked into the room, all hope for collaboration flew out the window. Not only was he making a late entrance – instead of arriving earlier that morning with the rest of the group – he didn’t look like one of the team. He looked like a “suit,” a hierarchical leader who would ask for input only as a rubber stamp for decisions he’d already made.
I’ll never know why he chose to make that impression. Maybe he had a business appointment with an important client later that day, maybe he thought that this was the way an executive should always dress, or maybe he just didn’t think it mattered. But as anyone who was there that day could tell you, it not only mattered, it was pivotal.
If I could have caught him before he entered the room, I would have told him to take off his jacket, loosen his tie, and roll up his shirtsleeves. (I’d also have advised him to remove the Rolex and leave the Gucci briefcase on a chair in the corridor.) But instead, all I could do was sit there and watch as resistance and skepticism built and rippled through the assembled group.
In addition to dressing like you “have all the answers,” a leader can unintentionally sabotage collaboration by sending the wrong body language signals. Because it really doesn’t take much to make people feel left out. The nonverbal signals that make someone feel unimportant are often slight: letting your gaze wander while he or she is talking, or angling your shoulders even a quarter turn away. Trivial actions if they happen only infrequently, are most likely not going to demoralize your team. But if you are continually off-handed, neglectful, or unresponsive to certain individuals, your behaviour will not go unnoticed.
If you appear to play favourites by using more positive nonverbal signals with some people than with others, if your body language excludes only some individuals, and especially if those exclusions result in hurt feelings, it can be seriously destructive to any collaborative effort. Team members who feel that they and their ideas are being ignored will simply withdraw and stop contributing, and the sense of unease created by that withdrawal will broadcast itself subliminally to the whole group.
On the other hand, if you use inclusive, pro-social, body language (equally) with all team members, you create an emotionally rich environment that supports collaboration and high performance.
For example, a genuine smile not only stimulates your own sense of well-being, it also tells those around you that you are approachable, cooperative, and trustworthy. A genuine smile comes on slowly, crinkles the eyes, lights up the face, and fades away slowly. By way of contrast, a counterfeit or “polite” smile comes on quickly and never reaches the eyes.
And 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 is another signal that you are interested, curious, and involved. The head tilt is a universal gesture of giving the other person an ear. As such, head tilts can be very positive cues when you want to encourage people to expand on their comments.
One of the most powerful motivators to encourage participation is eye contact, because people feel that they have your attention and interest as long as you are 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 he or she feels you are 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 his or her nonverbal behaviour. When you synchronize your body language with members of your team, you signal that you are connected and engaged.
Also, face people directly. Even a quarter turn away creates a barrier (the “cold shoulder”), signaling 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 cell phone, and put your purse or briefcase to the side.
And if you think it makes you look more efficient (or important) to be continually checking a laptop or cell phone 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 totally addicted to his Blackberry. He is constantly on the machine during internal meetings. When he finally focuses on others, peers make jokes about his ‘coming back to earth.’ We know he’s not tracking the conversation because he keeps asking questions that have been already responded to. The result is that when he does contribute, he has no credibility.”
The bottom line is that it is important to align your nonverbal behaviour with your leadership goals. If you really want to build a collaborative team, make sure you look like you do!
Troy Media columnist 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.