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Body Language for Leaders

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD


Many executives in my audiences are initially skeptical about hearing a speaker on body
language because they suspect that the topic might be interesting, but not very practical.
By the end of my program, they know better. Heres what they learn:
1. Science has validated the impact of body language.
Body language is the management of time, space, appearance, posture, gesture, touch, smell,
facial expression, eye contact, and vocal prosody. From the latest research in neuroscience and
psychology we can now prove that body language is crucial to leadership effectiveness and we
can show exactly how it impacts a leaders ability to negotiate, manage change, build trust,
project charisma, and promote collaboration.
For example, research by the MIT Media Lab shows how subtle nonverbal cues provide powerful
signals about what's really going on in a business interaction. Whether you win or lose a negotiation
is strongly influenced by unconscious factors such as the way your body postures match the other
person, the level of physical activity as you talk, and the degree to which you set the tone literally
of the conversation.
Based on data from devices (called Sociometers) that monitor and analyze patterns of unconscious
nonverbal signals passing between people, researchers with no knowledge of a conversations
content can predict the outcome of a negotiation, the presentation of a business plan, or a job
interview in two minutes with over 80% accuracy.
2. All human beings (thats every direct report, board member, customer,
contractor, and colleague) have been genetically programmed to look for facial
and behavioral cues and to quickly decode their meaning.
As a species we knew how to win friends and influence people or avoid/placate/confront
those we couldnt befriend long before we knew how to use words. Our ancestors made survival
decisions based solely on intricate bits of visual information they were picking up from others.
And they did so almost instantly.
We still do.
Research at New York University found that we make major decisions about one another assessing
credibility, friendliness, trustworthiness, confidence, power, status, and competence within the
first seven seconds of meeting.
In business, these first impressions are crucial. Once someone mentally labels you as likeable
or unlikeable, powerful or submissive, everything else you do will be viewed through that
filter. If someone likes you, shell look for the best in you. If she doesnt like you, or mistrusts you,
shell suspect devious motives in all your actions.
Why Leaders Should Watch
Their Body Language
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD
As a leader looking to make a positive first impression, youd better know how to instantly
project the nonverbal signals of warmth, candor, credibility, and confidence.
3. People evaluate body language unconsciously.
The tricky thing about body language (and one of the reasons it is so powerful) is its unconscious
nature. Co-workers may form a negative opinion of you because you slouch, dont make enough
eye contact or make too much eye contact or stand too close to them when you speak.
But, because people are unaware of how or why they made the judgment, they are unable to
filter out their biases.
With nonverbal communication, its not how the sender feels that matters most; it is how the
observer perceives how the sender feels. And those interpretations are often made deep in the
subconscious mind, triggered by the limbic brain, and based on a primitive emotional reaction
that hasnt changed much since humans began interacting with one another.
Thats why your nonverbal signals dont always convey what you intended them to. You may
be slouching because youre tired, but people read it as a sign of disinterest. You may be more
comfortable standing with your arms folded across your chest (or you may be cold), but others
see you as resistant and unapproachable. And keeping your hands stiffly by your side or stuck
in your pockets can give the impression that youre insecure whether you are or not.
4. Body language is how leaders express emotion.
A classic and often misquoted study by Dr. Albert Mehabrian at the University of California
Los Angeles stated the total impact of a message is based on: 7% words used; 38% tone of voice,
volume, rate of speech, vocal pitch; 55% facial expressions, hand gestures, postures and other
forms of body language.
But Mehabrian never claimed that you could view a movie in a foreign language and accurately
guess 93 percent of the content by watching body language. In fact, he was only studying the
communication of feelings particularly, liking and disliking.
The nonverbal aspects of communication wont deliver 93 percent of your entire message, but
it will reveal underlying emotion, motives, and feelings, In fact, people will evaluate most of the
emotional content of your message, not by what you say but by how you say it and how you
look when you say it.
5. When your body language doesnt match your words, your verbal
message is lost.
Neuroscientists at Colgate University study the effects of gestures by using an electroenceph-
alograph (EEG) machines to measure event related potentials brain waves that form peaks a
nd valleys. One of these valleys, dubbed N400, occurs when subjects are shown gestures that
contradict whats spoken. This is the same brain wave dip that occurs when people listen to
nonsensical language. So, in a very real way, when your words say one thing and your gestures
indicate another, you dont make sense. And if forced to choose between your rhetoric and
your body language, people will believe what they see and not what you say.
By the end of my program, leaders in the audience understand how nonverbal skills can help
them develop positive business relationships, influence and motivate direct reports, improve
productivity, bond with team members, present ideas with more impact, and authentically pro-
ject their personal brand of charisma. They learn that body language is not only interesting,
but also imminently practical!
Your nonverbal signals dont always convey what you intended them to. In fact, when people
read your body language, you can count on them making five major mistakes.
Body language was the basis for our earliest form of communication when the split-second ability
to recognize if a person or situation was benign or dangerous was often a matter of life or death.

Today, nonverbal signals play a key role in helping us form quick impressions. But, as innate as
this ability may be, not all of our impressions are accurate. Although our brains are hardwired to
respond instantly to certain nonverbal cues, that circuitry was put in place a long time ago when
our ancient ancestors faced threats and challenges very different from those we face in todays
modern society. The problem is that the world has changed, but our body reading processes
are still based on a primitive emotional reaction that hasnt changed much since humans began
interacting with one another.
For example: In our prehistory, it may have been vitally important to see an approaching persons
hands in order to evaluate his intent. If hands were concealed they could very well be holding a
rock, a club, or other means of doing us harm. In business interactions today, with no logical
reason to do so, we still instinctively mistrust someone who keeps his hands out of sight -- in his
pockets, below the table, or behind his back.
The following is adapted from my new book, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body
Language Can Help or Hurt How You Lead. Here are the five mistakes people make when
they read your body language:
1. They wont consider the context.
When it comes to body language, context is king. You cant really make sense of someones
nonverbal message unless you understand the circumstances behind it. Context is a weave of
variables including location, relationships, time of day, past experience, and even room temperature.
Depending on the context, the same nonverbal signals can take on totally different meanings.
Your team members and colleagues wont always have access to this insight. So if you yawn in
a staff meeting because you were up early for an international business call let people know why
youre tired. Without this context, youll look like youre just bored.
2. Theyll find meaning in one gesture.
People are constantly trying to evaluate your state of mind by monitoring your body language.
But all too often they will assign meaning to a single (and sometimes irrelevant) nonverbal cue.
And, since the human brain pays more attention to negative messages than it does to positive
ones, people are mainly on the alert for any sign that indicates youre in a bad mood and not to
be approached.
5 Mistakes People Make
Reading Your Body Language
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD
So you may be more comfortable standing with your arms folded across your chest (or you may
be cold), but dont be surprised when others judge that gesture as resistant and unapproachable.
3. They wont know your baseline.
One of the keys to accurately reading body language is to compare someones current nonverbal
response to their baseline, or normal behavior. But if people havent observed you over time, they
have little basis for that comparison.
Remember this when meeting people for the first time. They wont know that you habitually
frown when you are concentrating. (And you may not realize it either unless you ask a friend or
coach for feedback.) Others will most likely think the frown is a reaction to something they
said or did.
4. Theyll evaluate you through an array of personal biases.
There is a woman in my yoga class who liked me from the moment we met. Id prefer to believe
that this was a result of my charismatic personality, but I know for a fact that its because I resemble
her favorite aunt.
Sometimes biases work in your favor an example of the so-called halo effect. But biases
can also work against you. What if, instead of someone they like, you remind people of someone
they despise? You might overcome it with time, but you can bet that their initial response to you
wont be a good one.
5. Theyll evaluate through a filter of cultural biases.
When it comes to nonverbal communication and cultural differences, you can expect to be
judged by behaviors that include how close you stand to a colleague in conversation, how much
or little you touch others, the degree of emotion in your voice, the amount of eye contact you
display, and the kind of hand gestures you use. And what feels so right in one culture may be
seen as highly insulting in another. (So before you attend that international business meeting,
do a little research to on the nonverbal business practices that youre most likely to encounter.)
These are the five mistakes you can expect people to make. Understanding them, and trying
not to make the same mistakes, will help you be a more effective nonverbal communicator.
The chief executive ofcer of an oil company showed up at a renery in a designer suit and tie
to discuss a change initiative with rank-and-le operators, electricians, and members of the ware-
house staff dressed in their blue, re-retardant overalls.
After being introduced and walking carefully to the front of the room, he removed his wristwatch
(lets call it a Rolex) and quite visibly placed it on the lectern. The unspoken message: Im a very
important man, I dont like coming into dirty places like this, and I have exactly 20 minutes to
spend with you.
That message was, you understand, quite different from the words he actually used to begin
his comments: Im happy to be with you today.
Which do you think those renery workers believed . . . the CEOs spoken words or what his
body language said?
We continue to nd out more and more about how body language affects the messages were
trying to send. Consider, for example, the elds of psychology, neurobiology, criminology, and
sociology. We dont normally associate them with advances in communication research, but
evidence from these elds has given nonverbal communication scientic credence. And one of
the ndings from evolutionary psychology is that our brains are hard-wired to respond to
nonverbal signals even though most of us arent consciously aware of the process.
Heres what one researcher discovered: A classic study by Dr. Albert Mehrabian at UCLA found
that the total impact of a message is based on only 7 percent of the words used. Much more
important are facial expressions (responsible for 55 percent of the total impact of the message),
tone of voice (38 percent), and other forms of body language.

Obviously, you cant watch a person speaking in a foreign language and understand 93 percent
of what is being communicated. Mehrabian was only studying the communication of feelings
particularly, the feelings of liking and disliking. Still, you can bet that, when the verbal and non-
verbal channels of communication are out of sync, most people (those renery workers, for
example) will tend to rely on the nonverbal message and disregard the verbal content.
All change agents express enthusiasm, warmth, and condence as well as arrogance, indifference,
and displeasure through their facial expressions, gestures, touch, and use of space. If a leader
wants to be perceived as credible and forthright, he or she has got to think outside the speech
and recognize the importance of nonverbal communication.
It is especially crucial for leaders (at all levels of the organization) to communicate congruently
that is, to align the spoken word with body language that supports (instead of sabotages) an
intended message. When nonverbal messages conict with your verbal messages, the people you
are talking to become confused. Mixed signals have a negative effect on performance and make
it almost impossible to build relationships of trust.
The Silent Language of
Change Leadership
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD
When a leader stands in front of an audience of employees and talks about how much he
welcomes their input, the message gets derailed if that executive hides behind a lectern, or leans
back away from his audience, or puts his hands behind his back, or shoves them in his pockets,
or folds his arms across his chest. All of those send closed nonverbal signals when the intended
message is really about openness.
Then there is the matter of timing. If a leaders gestures are produced before or as the words
come out, she appears open and candid. However, if she speaks rst and then gestures (as I have
seen many executives do) its perceived as a contrived movement. And at that point, the validity
of whatever is said comes under suspicion.
Nonverbal communication also plays a critical role in making sure the work force truly receives
and understands key messages. If a leader is going to talk about new initiatives, major change,
strategic opportunities or if he/she has to deliver bad news my advice is to do so in person.
Every research report on employee communications presents one consistent conclusion: Face-to-face
communications is the employees medium of choice. This is because in face-to-face encounters,
our brains process a continual cascade of nonverbal cues that we use as the basis for building
trust and professional intimacy both of which are critical to high-level collaboration, persuasion,
and communication.
And if they cant see their leader in person, employees want to view the next best thing. Consider
the case with one Fortune 25 Company, where teleconferences provided an ongoing opportunity
for small groups of employees to get up close and personal with the CEO. Time after time,
employees would ask about policies or pending organizational changes that had already been
communicated in various company publications and through dozens of email announcements.
After the meetings, the beleaguered CEO would ask his communication manager, How many
times have we told them about that? Why dont they know that?
Oh, they know it, the communications manager would reply. They just want to hear it from
you. More importantly, they want to be able to look at you when you say it.
As a change leader, there is no doubt that you can gain a professional advantage by learning
how to use nonverbal communication more effectively. Getting out from behind the lectern so
the audience can see your entire body, fully facing the audience, making eye contact, keeping
your movements relaxed and natural, standing tall, using open arm gestures, showing the palms
of your hands all are silent signals of credibility and candor. And a good coach can help you
nd the gestures and facial expressions that are most congruent with the messages you want
to convey.
But body language is more than a set of techniques. It is also a reection of a persons internal
state. In fact, the more someone tries to control emotions, the more likely they are to leak out
nonverbally.
Heres a recent example: The corporate communicator who brought me into her company to
coach an executive warned me that he was a pretty crummy speaker. And, after watching him
at a leadership conference, I was in total agreement. It wasnt his words they were carefully
chosen and well rehearsed. It was, rather, how he looked when he spoke. Mechanical in all his
gestures, this mans body was screaming: Im uncomfortable and unconvinced about everything
Im saying!
The question: Could I help?
The answer: Not much.
Oh sure, I could nd ways to make his movements less wooden and his timing more uid. But
if a person doesnt care about (or believe in) what he is saying, his gestures will automatically
become lethargic and restricted. What the executive needed most was genuine enthusiasm and
passion about the companys new strategic direction. Because what employee audiences saw
when this business leader spoke was exactly how he really felt!
And, of course, learning to align body language with verbal messages is only one side of the
nonverbal coin. The other side and here is where leaders can really set themselves apart is the
ability to accurately read the nonverbal signals that employees and team members display.

Peter Drucker, the renowned author, professor and management consultant, understood this
clearly. The most important thing in communication, he once said, is hearing what isnt said.
You are brought into a room to play a computer game. On the screen you see your avatar, a
computerized graphic that represents you in this virtual environment. You also spot the avatars
for two other players, both of whom you assume are physically located with their own computers
in similar rooms.

At first it is fun and easy a simple ball-tossing game over the Internet. Then about half way
through the game, you notice something odd. It seems as though the other players are excluding
you. In fact, soon they completely stop throwing the ball to you and are interacting only with
each other. You dont know why its happening, but you know you are being rejected.

Later you are told that there were no other human players, only a software program designed to
exclude the test subject (you!) at some point. But even when you learn the truth, you cant shake
the feeling of being snubbed. You still feel as if you were left out of the game for some personal
reason . . .

At least that is how you respond if you are typical of the subjects in this experiment by social
neuroscientists at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The research project was
designed to make people experience rejection, and then to find out what goes in the brain
as a result.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) equipment, researchers tracked the blood
flow in the brains of rejected subjects and made a surprising discovery: When someone feels
excluded there is corresponding activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex
the neural region involved in the suffering component of pain. In other words, they found that
the feeling of being excluded provokes the same sort of reaction in the brain that physical pain
might cause. It was also found that both physical and emotional suffering respond positively
to Tylenol.

For business leaders this research has practical applications, as the experiment shows that it
really doesnt take much to make people left out. And this finding is especially interesting to me
as an executive coach and body language expert. As Ive often told leaders, the nonverbal signals
that make someone feel excluded or unimportant are often slight: letting your gaze wander
while he or she is talking, leaning back, crossing your arms, or angling your torso even a quarter
turn away (in essence, giving someone the cold shoulder).
An occasional body language lapse wont demoralize your team. But if you are continually
off-handed, neglectful or unresponsive, your nonverbal behavior could be seriously destructive
to the trust and collaboration you are seeking to foster.

Consider this email I received from an office worker in an insurance company: My boss drives
us crazy with her mixed messages. She says things like, "You are always welcome in my office"
and You are all an important part of the team. At the same time, her nonverbal communication
is constantly showing how unimportant we are to her. She never makes eye contact, will shuffle
Ouch! You Excluded Me
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD
papers when others talk, works on her computer while we answer her questions and generally
does not give her full attention. In fact, we dont even rate her half attention! Then she wonders
why her staff doesn't seek her out.
In consulting with leaders who are trying to foster collaboration, Ive seen first-hand how team
spirit can disintegrate. Those who feel that they are being discounted simply withdraw and stop
contributing, and the sense of unease created by that withdrawal then broadcasts itself sublim-
inally (by a processes called emotional contagion) to the whole group. And there goes the
leaders hopes for collaboration, and productivity.

So think about the UCLA research the next time you host a meeting. Realize that when you
appear to play favorites by using more positive nonverbal signals -- smiles, eye contact, forward
leans, etc. -- with some people than with others or when your body language actually excludes
some individuals, those behaviors can result in hurt feelings that are, actually, painful.
If all else fails remember to pass around the Tylenol.
Charisma has been described as personal magnetism or charm. To me, charisma is all about an
individuals infectious attitude, personal energy, and enthusiasm as projected through his or her
body language.
As a leadership coach, I help clients develop their own unique brand of charisma.
I also help them fake it.
Trying to display condence when youre actually feeling uncertain, or to be seen as upbeat and
positive when (for any reason) you are feeling the opposite, is a tricky thing. But there are two valid
options that will work: You can use a Method acting technique or you can work at the somatic
level with a powerful postures strategy. (The rst technique takes time and practice. The
second, only two minutes.)
First Technique: The Method
The Method refers to an approach to acting that draws on real but past emotions. For example,
an actor preparing for a role that involves fear would remember something that had actually
frightened him or her in the past, and bring that memory into the current role to make it
emotionally valid.
As a leader, you have different goals than an actor in a play, but the sense of conviction and
believability you want to project is fundamentally the same. For example, if you were going into
an important meeting, and you wanted to exude condence and charisma, here is how you
might use The Method to help you prepare:
1. Think of an occasion where you were enthused, condent and successful. (This could be a
memory of a professional achievement, but it doesnt have to be taken from your business life.
Whats important is identifying the right set of emotions.)
2. Picture that past event clearly in your mind. Recall the feeling of certainty, of achievement,
of clarity of purpose and remember or imagine how you drew people to you as you embodied
that state of mind.
3. Then, picture yourself at the upcoming meeting exuding that same positive attitude and
personal charisma. The more you repeat this mental rehearsal seeing yourself at the upcoming
meeting, assured, condent and charismatic, the more you increase your ability to enter the
meeting room with body language that is triggered by that authentic, positive emotion.
Second Technique: Powerful Postures
You know that the way you feel affects your body. If you are reluctant or depressed, you tend
to round your shoulders, slump, and look down. If you are upbeat and assured you tend to hold
yourself erect and expand your chest. But did you know that the reverse is also true? Your posture
has a powerful impact on your emotions and on the way that others perceive you.
How to Fake Charisma
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD
Research at Harvard and Columbia Business Schools, shows that simply holding your body in
expansive, high-power poses (in the study they had subjects lean back with hands behind their
heads and their feet up on a desk, or standing and leaning over a desk while planting their hands
far apart) for as little as two minutes stimulates higher levels of testosterone - the hormone linked
to power and dominance - and lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
In addition to causing hormonal shifts in both males and females, the researchers found that
these powerful postures lead to increased feelings of power and a higher tolerance for risk. They
also found that people are more often inuenced by how they feel about you than by what youre
saying. (Which is exactly why body language training is so effective for my executive clients!)
So the next time you go into a situation in which you want to project your most charismatic self,
start by standing up straight, pulling your shoulders back, widening your stance and holding your
head high. Then smile and stretch your arms out wide (or place them on your hips arms
akimbo). Just by holding this pose for a minute or two you will begin to feel surer of yourself
and to project real condence and charisma.
Then, if you add a smile (even one physically induced by holding a pencil in your back teeth), youll
trigger a similar body-mind effect (called facial feedback, and actually begin to feel happier.
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD
As an executive coach, Ive studied and been awed by the impact of body language on leader-
ship results. Ive seen rst-hand how nonverbal signals can literally make or break a leaders
success. Ive also noticed that most leaders are nonverbally illiterate - completely out of touch
with the effect their body language has on others and unaware of the clear nonverbal signals
that are being sent by clients and colleagues in every business encounter. The human brain is
hard-wired to read and respond to these signals, but most leaders dont know that the process
is taking place and are unequipped, therefore, to use it to their advantage.
Carol Kinsey Goman is an executive coach, leadership consultant, and keynote speaker who
addresses association, government, and business audiences around the world. Her clients include
over 100 organizations in 24 countries corporate giants such as Consolidated Edison, Royal
Bank of Canada and PepsiCo; major non-prot organizations such as the American Institute of
Banking, the Healthcare Forum and the American Society of Training and Development; high-tech
rms such as Cisco, Hewlett-Packard and Texas Instruments; membership organizations such as
The Young Presidents Organization and The Conference Board; government agencies such as
the Ofce of the Comptroller of the Currency, U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments
Command, and the Library of Congress; and international rms such as Petroleos de Venezuela,
Dairy Farm in Hong Kong, and Wartsilla Diesel in Finland.
Carol has an extensive background in organizational people issues. Shes published over 300
articles in the elds of organizational change, leadership, communication, the multi-generational
work force, collaboration, employee engagement, and body language in the workplace. An
upbeat and entertaining guest, shes been featured in media including NPRs Marketplace, CNNs
Business Unusual, Investors Business Daily, Executive Excellence, CBS Interactive, and the NBC
Nightly News.
Carol has served as adjunct faculty at John F. Kennedy University in the International MBA program,
at U.C. Berkeley in the Executive Education Department, and for the Chamber of Commerce of
the United States at their Institutes for Organization Management. She is the president of Kinsey
Consulting Services in Berkeley, California, a faculty member for the Institute for Management
Studies and a senior consultant for The Dilenschneider Group.
Carol blogs for BNET and Forbes.com. Shes an expert contributor for The Washington Posts
On Leadership column and a columnist for the UK magazine, the Market. Her latest book is
THE SILENT LANGUAGE OF LEADERS: How Body Language Can Help or Hurt How You Lead.
To contact Carol about speaking or coaching,
call 510-526-1727 or email CGoman@CKG.com.
For more information or to view videos, visit Carols websites:
http://www.SilentLanguageOfLeaders.com and http://www.CKG.com.
You can also follow Carol on Twitter: http://twitter.com/CGoman,
or like her Facebook Fan Page:
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Carol-Kinsey-Goman-PhD/105398069543578