5 ways body language impacts leadership results

Use of personal space, physical gestures, posture, facial expressions, and eye contact can enhance, support, weaken, or even sabotage leadership impact.

Photo: yakovlev.alexey via Flickr

Effective leadership depends on the ability to inspire and positively impact people. In preparing for an important meeting – with your staff, leadership team, or clients – you concentrate on what to say, memorize crucial points, and rehearse your presentation so that you will come across as credible and convincing. This is, of course, something you already know.

But did you also know that the people you’re hoping to influence will be subliminally evaluating your credibility, confidence, empathy, and trustworthiness — and that their evaluation will be only partially determined by what you say? Did you know that your use of personal space, physical gestures, posture, facial expressions, and eye contact can enhance, support, weaken, or even sabotage your impact as a leader?

Here are five crucial things that every leader needs to know about body language:

1. You make an impression in less than seven seconds

In business interactions, first impressions are crucial. Once someone mentally labels you as “trustworthy” or “suspicious,” “powerful” or “submissive,” everything else you do will be viewed through such a filter. If someone likes you, she’ll look for the best in you. If she mistrusts you, she’ll suspect all of your actions.

While you can’t stop people from making snap decisions – the human brain is hardwired in this way as a survival mechanism – you can understand how to make those decisions work in your favor.

First impressions are made in less than seven seconds and are heavily influenced by your body language. In fact, studies have found that nonverbal cues have over four times the impact on the impression you make than anything you say. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Adjust your attitude. People pick up your attitude instantly. Before you greet a client, or enter the conference room for a business meeting, or step onstage to make a presentation, think about the situation and make a conscious choice about the attitude you want to embody.
  • Smile. Smiling is a positive signal that is underused by leaders. A smile is an invitation, a sign of welcome and inclusion. It says, “I’m friendly and approachable.”
  • Make eye contact. Looking at someone’s eyes transmits energy and indicates interest and openness. (To improve your eye contact, make a practice of noticing the eye color of everyone you meet.)
  • Lean in slightly. Leaning forward shows you’re engaged and interested. But be respectful of the other person’s space. That means, in most business situations, stay about two feet away.
  • Watch your posture. Research from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University discovered that “posture expansiveness,” positioning oneself in a way that opens up the body and takes up space, activated a sense of power that produced behavioral changes in a subject independent of their actual rank or role in an organization. In fact, it was consistently found across three studies that posture mattered more than hierarchy in making a person think, act, and be perceived in a more powerful way.
  • Shake hands. This is the quickest way to establish rapport. It’s also the most effective. Research shows it takes an average of three hours of continuous interaction to develop the same level of rapport that you can get with a single handshake. (Just make sure you have palm-to-palm contact and that your grip is firm but not bone-crushing.)

2. Building trust depends on your verbal-nonverbal alignment

Trust is established through a perfect alignment between what is being said and the body language that accompanies it. If your gestures are not in full congruence with your verbal message, people subconsciously perceive duplicity, uncertainty, or (at the very least) internal conflict.

Neuroscientists at Colgate University study the effects of gestures by using an electroencephalograph (EEG) machines to measure “event related potentials” – brain waves that form peaks and valleys. One of these valleys occurs when subjects are shown gestures that contradict what’s spoken. This is the same brain wave dip that occurs when people listen to nonsensical language.

So, in a very real way, whenever leaders say one thing and their gestures indicate another, they simply don’t make sense. Whenever your body language doesn’t match your words (for example, dropping eye contact and glancing around the room while trying to convey candor, rocking back on heels when talking about the organization’s solid future, or folding arms across chest while declaring openness) your verbal message is lost.

3. What you say when you talk with your hands

Have you ever noticed that when people are passionate about what they’re saying, their gestures automatically become more animated? Their hands and arms move about, emphasizing points and conveying enthusiasm.

You may not have been aware of this connection before, but you instinctively felt it. Research shows that audiences tend to view people who use a greater variety of gestures in a more favorable light. Studies also find that people who communicate through active gesturing tend to be evaluated as warm, agreeable, and energetic, while those who remain still (or whose gestures seem mechanical or “wooden”) are seen as logical, cold, and analytic.

That’s one reason why gestures are so critical to a leader’s effectiveness and why getting them right in a presentation connects so powerfully with an audience.

I’ve seen senior executives make rookie mistakes. When leaders don’t use gestures correctly (if they let their hands hang limply to the side or clasp their hands in front of their bodies in the classic “fig leaf” position), it suggests they have no emotional investment in the issues or are not convinced about the point they’re trying to make.

To use gestures effectively, leaders need to be aware of how those movements will most likely be perceived. Here are four common hand gestures and the messages behind them:

  • Hidden hands. Hidden hands make you look less trustworthy. This is one of the nonverbal signals that is deeply ingrained in our subconscious. Our ancestors made survival decisions based solely on bits of visual information they picked up from one another. In our prehistory, when someone approached with hands out of view, it was a signal of potential danger. Although today the threat of hidden hands is more symbolic than real, our ingrained psychological discomfort remains.
  • Finger pointing. I’ve often seen executives use this gesture in meetings, negotiations, or interviews for emphasis or to show dominance. The problem is that aggressive finger pointing can suggest that the leader is losing control of the situation – and the gesture smacks of parental scolding or playground bullying.
  • Enthusiastic gestures. There is an interesting equation of hand and arm movement with energy. If you want to project more enthusiasm and drive, you can do so by increased gesturing. On the other hand, over-gesturing (especially when hands are raised above the shoulders) can make you appear erratic, less believable, and less powerful.
  • Grounded gestures. Arms held at waist height, and gestures within that horizontal plane, help you – and the audience – feel centered and composed. Arms at waist and bent to a 45-degree angle (accompanied by a stance about shoulder-width wide) will also help you keep grounded, energized, and focused.

4. Your most influential communication medium is (still) face-to-face

In this fast-paced, techno-charged era of email, texts, teleconferences, and video chats, one universal truth remains: Face-to-face is the most preferred, productive, and powerful communication medium. In fact, the more business leaders communicate electronically, the more pressing becomes the need for personal interaction.

Here’s why:

In face-to-face meetings, our brains process the continual cascade of nonverbal cues that we use as the basis for building trust and professional intimacy. Face-to-face interaction is information-rich. We interpret what people say to us only partially from the words they use. We get most of the message (and all of the emotional nuance behind the words) from vocal tone, pacing, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues. And we rely on immediate feedback – the instantaneous responses of others – to help us gauge how well our ideas are being accepted.

So potent is the nonverbal link between individuals that, when we are in genuine rapport with someone, we subconsciously match our body positions, movements, and even our breathing rhythms with theirs. Most interesting, in face-to-face encounters the brain’s ”mirror neurons” mimic not just behaviors, but sensations and feelings as well. When we are denied these interpersonal cues and are forced to rely on the printed or spoken word alone, the brain struggles and real communication suffers.

Technology may be a great facilitator for factual information, but meeting in person is the key to positive employee and client relationships. As Michael Massari, Ceasars Entertainment’s SVP of National Meetings and Events, told me: “No matter what industry you work in, we are all in the people business. Regardless of how tech-savvy you may be, face-to-face meetings are still the most effective way to capture the attention of participants, engage them in the conversation, and drive productive collaboration. In fact, at Ceasars, our mantra is: If it’s not that important, send an email. If it’s important but not mission critical, pick up the phone. If it’s critically important to the success of your organization, go see someone.”

5. If you can’t read body language, you are missing half the conversation

More business executives are learning not only how to send the right signals, but also how to read them. Peter Drucker, the renowned management consultant, understood this clearly. “The most important thing in communication,” he once said, “is hearing what isn’t said.”

Communication happens over two channels – verbal and nonverbal – resulting in two distinct conversations going on at the same time. While verbal communication is obviously important, it’s not the only message being sent. Without the ability to read body language, we miss crucial elements to conversations that can positively or negatively impact a business.

When people aren’t completely onboard with an initiative, leaders need to be able to recognize what’s happening – and to respond quickly. That’s why engagement and disengagement are two of the most important signals to monitor in other people’s body language. Engagement behaviors indicate interest, receptivity, or agreement while disengagement behaviors signal boredom, anger, or defensiveness.

Engagement signals include head nods or tilts (the universal sign of “giving someone your ear”), and open-body postures. When people are engaged, they will face you directly, “pointing” at you with their whole body. However, the instant they feel uncomfortable, they may angle their upper body away – giving you “the cold shoulder.” And if they sit through the entire meeting with both arms and legs crossed, it’s unlikely you have their buy-in.

Also, monitor the amount of eye contact you’re getting. In general, people tend to look longer and with more frequency at people or objects they like. Most of us are comfortable with eye contact lasting about three seconds, but when we like or agree with someone we automatically increase the amount of time we look into his or her eyes. Disengagement triggers the opposite: the amount of eye contact decreases, as we tend to look away from things that distress or bore us.

Body-language savvy is becoming part of an executive’s personal brand. Great leaders sit, stand, walk, and gesture in ways that exude confidence, competence, and status. They also send nonverbal signals of warmth and empathy – especially when nurturing collaborative environments and managing change. As an executive coach, I’ve been awed by the impact that body language has on leadership results. Good body language skills can help you motivate direct reports, bond with audiences, present ideas with added credibility, and authentically project your personal brand of charisma. That’s a powerful set of skills for any leader to develop.

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an international keynote speaker and leadership presence coach. She’s the author of “The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt How You Lead” and creator of LinkedInLearning’s video series: “Body Language for Leaders.” For more information, visit https://CarolKinseyGoman.com.