Join Carol Kinsey Goman for an in-depth discussion in this video Getting your body language to match your words, part of Body Language for Leaders.
- Imagine that you're the chief executive officer of an oil company, you've just arrived at a refinery to speak to a group of operators, electricians and warehouse workers. They're all dressed in fire retardant coveralls, you're wearing a designer suit, white shirt and power tie. After being introduced you walk very carefully to the front of the room, after all you don't want to get your suit stained. You remove your expensive wristwatch, and quite visibly place it on the lectern. Your unspoken message is, "I'm a very important person, "I'm uncomfortable in dirty places like this, "and I have exactly 20 minutes to spend with you." That message, is of course, quite different from the words you used to begin your comments, "I'm so happy to be with you today," but which do you think the refinery workers will believe, your words or your body language? Here's what research finds, when your body language doesn't match your words, your verbal message is lost.
Neuroscientists at Colgate University studied the effects of gestures by using electroencephalographs, EEG machines, to measure brainwaves that form peaks and valleys. One of these valleys called N400, occurs when people listen to nonsensical language. N400 also happens when subjects are shown gestures that contradict what's spoken. In a very real way, when your words say one thing, and your gestures indicate another you don't make sense, and when forced to choose between your verbal and nonverbal messages, people will instinctively believe what they see and not what you say.
That's why it's crucial for you as a leader to communicate congruently, that is to align what you say with body language that supports your words. When your nonverbal signals sabotage your verbal messages people become confused. These mixed messages have a negative effect on performance, and make it almost impossible to build relationships of trust. If you stand in front of your team, and talk about how much you welcome their input, the message gets derailed if you have a forced smile, or lean away from the team, or don't maintain eye contact.
All of these are disengaged signals, when your intended message is about inclusiveness. Then there's the matter of timing. If you gesture just before or as you speak, you appear to be open and candid. However, if you speak first and then gesture, as I've seen many leaders do, it's unconsciously perceived as phony, and at that point the validity of whatever you're saying comes under suspicion. There's no doubt that you can gain a professional advantage by learning how to use body language more effectively, and I know you'll get a lot of tips and techniques from this course, but body language is more than a set of techniques, it's also a reflection of your true internal state.
Here's a recent example, the HR manager who brought me into the company to coach an executive, warned me that she was a pretty crummy speaker, and after watching her at a leadership conference I was in total agreement. It wasn't what she said, her words were carefully chosen and well-rehearsed. It was how she looked when she spoke. She was verbally telling people that the upcoming change would be good for them, while her entire body was screaming, "I'm uncomfortable and unconvinced "about everything I'm saying." There wasn't much I could do to help.
Oh sure, I could find ways to make her movements less mechanical and her timing more fluid, but if a person doesn't generally care about or believe in what she's saying her body language will eventually give her away. What that executive needed most was authentic enthusiasm, and passion about the company's new strategy, because what employees saw when this leader spoke was exactly how she really felt. The main thing I want you to take away from this is that body language can't hide your innermost feelings.
In fact, in most cases it reveals those feelings. Take time to think about how you really feel about the current project you're asking your team to work on. If you secretly think it's a waste of time and resources, then you need to understand that you won't fool your team for long. Your negative attitude will be reflected in your nonverbal behavior. If, on the other hand, you believe that the project is important and interesting, then you can be assured that your genuine enthusiasm will be reflected through your body language.