Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D
Before the meeting began, Adam had assumed a “power pose,” standing with hands on hips and feet wide apart, for two full minutes, to get all the advertised benefits of doing so. And it worked. He could almost feel his stress level lowering and his self-confidence rising. By the time he strode into the conference room, took his place at the head of the table, and made strong eye contact with all the participants, Adam exuded authority, power and status.
Eve was at a different meeting. Naturally empathetic and likable, Eve smiled a lot, nodded to encourage others to continue speaking and tilted her head, in the universal sign of “giving someone your ear.” She waited politely before interjecting her own thoughts, and when she did, she spoke in a soft warm voice.
Adam’s leadership assignment was to facilitate a highly collaborative meeting in which all team members were expected to share insights and concerns about an upcoming project.
Eve’s meeting was her first strategy session with senior leaders, and an opportunity to enhance her “leadership presence” by being perceived as credible and competent. Both Adam and Eve exhibited good leadership body language. Both made bad choices.
In the workplace, we continuously and unconsciously assess leaders for two distinct sets of nonverbal signals. The first is warmth/likeablilty/empathy and the second is authority/power/status. Obviously, the art of blending just the right amount of warmth and authority signals is the “secret sauce” of leadership effectiveness . . . most of the time. There are business situations, however, when emphasizing one set of signals over the other gives you an advantage.
Power and status are non-verbally displayed in height and space. The ability to project authority is a body language strength. But, like any strength, when overused or inappropriately used, that asset can become a liability. And it’s easy for status signals to slip into signs of arrogance. For example, a nonverbal signal of confidence is to hold your head up – but if you tilt your head back even slightly, the signal changes to an arrogant sign of “looking-down-your-nose.”
Body language signals of warm are assessed almost instantly, as people check to see if you are “friend or foe” – or in a corporate setting, whether or not you have their interests at heart – even before they care about your level of competence and confidence. If your status signals are too strong, you can come across as uncaring an insensitive.
When it comes to facilitating collaborative teams and building high trust work environments, high-status behaviors can undermine your efforts. After all, if you act like “the boss who has all the answers,” why would anyone else need – or dare – to contribute?
Adam would have been more effective if he had looked more inclusive and less ‘in charge.” For example, he might have taken a seat in the middle of the table instead of the “power position” at the end. He could have remembered to smile more, to nod and to turn his entire body toward whomever spoke, silently indicating that he was giving others his full attention because their contributions mattered.
Eve faced an entirely different leadership situation, and the very cues that might have been so helpful to Adam were detrimental for her.
Warm body language including head tilts, nods and forward leans, definitely send signals of friendliness, interest and inclusion, but excessive or inappropriate warm signals can also be confusing and a credibility robber. Even a smile (which is the most positive display of warmth) can work against you if you smile too much when delivering a serious message or stating an objection. There are also cases where warm cues can make you look submissive – which is not the best image to project in a meeting where your goal is to impress executives with your confidence and expertise.
Eve’s head tilts worked well when she wanted to demonstrate interest in other members of the team, but when she stated her own opinions she would have been wiser to keep her head straight up in a more authoritative position. Her soft-spoken vocal responses also worked against her, lessening the impact of her comments. She need to speak up in a stronger voice if she wanted her remarks to reflect her genuine competence.
High-powered or confident body language is expansive. When you manifest powerful body language, you are seen as more influential. When you need to be seen as high-powered or confident, remember that power is displayed by height and space. If you stand you will look more powerful to those who are seated. If you move around, the additional space you take up adds to that impression. If you are sitting, you can still project power by sitting straight with both feet on the floor (which makes you look and feel “grounded”) and by spreading out your belongings on the conference table to claim more territory.
Body language not only affects the way others see you but also the way you see yourself. To make sure that your good body language doesn’t go bad, you need to understand what is at stake in any given situation, and adjust accordingly. If you want to be evaluated as authoritative, make sure that your body is reinforcing that message. On the other hand, if you want to encourage others to speak, use your warmer nonverbal signals to bolster collaboration.