People make 11 decisions about one another — including credibility, trustworthiness, sophistication, desirability, power and competence — within the first seven seconds of meeting, according to research from New York University’s Stern School of Business. Leaders may not be aware of what they are saying with their bodies, but others are receiving the message.
“What matters is that as a leader, you have to realize what a certain body signal will most likely trigger in the audience and what their behavioral reaction will be as a result,” said Carol Kinsey Goman, author of the forthcoming book The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help — or Hurt — How You Lead. “So much is done nonverbally on a first impression. As a new leader, you don’t have 90 days to warm up an organization, you have the very first time your team sees you. Leaders have to understand that body language resides in the eye of the beholder.”
According to Albert Mehrabian, professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, words account for only 7 percent of the message an individual conveys; the remaining 93 percent is nonverbal. Additionally, 55 percent of communication is based on what an audience perceives, and 38 percent is transmitted through tone of voice. Leaders’ audiences are picking up most of their managers’ messages — and all of the emotional repercussions behind the words — from nonverbal, body language signals.
According to Goman, body language is the management of time, space, appearance, posture, gesture, touch, smell, facial expression, eye contact and vocal prosody. To make a positive impression, leaders must instantly project two distinct types of skills.
“Leaders send out two sets of cues and followers look for two sets of cues in leaders,” Goman said. “They look for status cues — authority, confidence, competence — and they look for warmth cues — empathy, approachability, likeability. Great leaders have learned to balance those and display more of them unconsciously.”
The unconscious portrayal of negative body language has scientifically been proven to affect business decisions. Research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab shows how subtle, unconscious, nonverbal cues provide powerful signals as to what’s really going on in a business scenario. If such emotions, when negative, are not controlled in these scenarios, the effect can be dangerous.
Dore Butler and Florence Geis, researchers at the University of Delaware, compared the nonverbal affect responses to male and female leaders in an audience of peers and found that intellectual assertiveness by women in mixed-sex discussions elicits visible nonverbal cues of negative affect from both men and women. Females taking a leadership role in the group received fewer pleased responses and more displeased body language responses from fellow group members than male leaders speaking up and offering the same input.
“What happens to emerging leadership female candidates is that they don’t get recognized by the peer group because of this nonverbal contagion that goes around the group,” Goman said. “Women were not even seen as being as developmental as the males in the group in the University of Delaware study. If by any chance there is a leader in that group, such as a boss, manager or a team leader, what would happen unconsciously is that the rest of the group would take a lot of its cues from that leader, whether that were the leader’s intention or not. That can severely hurt the growth of women as leaders if the body language of senior men is projecting negative emotions.”
Learning to control body language is essential for managers to be perceived as credible and forthright by peers and their employees. If leaders’ body language doesn’t match their words, they’re wasting much of their time. “If you really want to build collaboration, you need to realize that your body has to say the same thing,” Goman said. “You have to face people directly; you have to look at them; you have to lean forward slightly; you have to nod; all those subtle signals are essential in order to get that person to respond and open up to you. That’s how you build relationships nonverbally.”
Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.