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Carol Kinsey GomanOf course I’m not talking about you. You may be a respected professional whose expertise speaks for itself. Your body language is a minor consideration.

Or is it?

Here’s an email I recently received from an engineer:

‘The Project Manager introduced a new consultant. The new guy smiled and shook hands with everybody, but it looked like an insincere, almost condescending smile and the handshake was soft and slippery. That was his first mistake. His next – and last – was sitting in the chair of a technical leader who was away on vacation. After that, the entire team boycotted the consultant, and his contract was quietly terminated after a couple of weeks. Nobody cared about his skills or contribution to the project.’

But that example was about an outside consultant. You may be a recognized leader within your organization. Once you achieve that level of power and status, your nonverbal signals become far less important.

Or do they?

Consider this incident.

I was at a meeting when the senior executive came in wearing a designer suit, white shirt and a power tie. He checked the time on his Rolex wristwatch and placed his elegant briefcase on the table. He exuded authority, power and status, and would have been perfectly dressed for a Board of Directors’ function. But that wasn’t the kind of meeting he was chairing.

He had assembled a multi-level, multi-functional group – a diagonal slice of 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 was ‘we’re all in this together’ – already a touchy subject as the employees knew there would be cut-backs in spending and employee numbers (and few expected that ‘together’ meant that executives would also be asked to cut costs and reduce their ranks).

But despite this initial reluctance on the part of the attendees, the first morning had gotten off to a smooth 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 the executive arrived. 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. And as he stood at the head of the table – symbolically reinforcing his authority – I watched resistance and skepticism build and ripple through the assembled group.

The executive probably never gave a thought to his body language or attire. Or, if he did, maybe he dismissed them as insignificant. If so, he was wrong. His nonverbal signals not only mattered, they sent a powerful message that completely undermined his stated objective.

Coaching leaders for the past 20 years, I’ve learned a lot about the impact of what isn’t said. I’ve learned how body language can validate, enhance, or totally undermine a leader’s intent. And one thing I know for sure: If there is any misalignment between a leader’s verbal and nonverbal messages, people (employees, stockholders, customers) will believe what they see and not what they hear.

How about you? Do you know what your body is saying? Do your nonverbal signals reinforce your messages and objectives? Or, as in the cases above, is your body language hindering your effectiveness – maybe even killing your career?

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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