Today’s business leaders need to inspire and motivate their employees, which depends heavily on effective communication skills. However, leaders frequently think too much about what they are going to say and not enough about how they will say it. A critical aspect of message delivery is body language. Everything from the personal space that they give their employees to the amount of eye contact that they make can color how a message is perceived—as well as the overall impression that they make. For that reason, leaders need to remain continuously aware of their body language and the nonverbal messages that they send the people around them. Some important points to keep in mind when it comes to body language in business leadership include the following:
Hand motions can convey excitation or nervousness.
Most of us instinctively gesture excitedly when we talk about something we are passionate about, and according to research, the use of hands and arms to emphasize points can win people over. We tend to view individuals who talk with their hands as energetic and agreeable, while those who do not gesture often come across as cold and analytic. For this reason, gestures can play an important role in the business world in winning over employees and getting them excited about a project.
Conversely, leaders who do not move at all when they talk may seem like they have little to no emotional investment in the point they are making. At the same time, gestures that come across as random may convey nervousness. Sometimes leaders feel like they should gesture, so they make movements that do not exactly correspond with what they are saying and end up coming across flustered.
Nonverbal communication plays a role in developing trust.
Much of the trust that develops between two people comes from nonverbal communication—particularly, eye contact. Avoiding eye contact can make people appear dishonest, but making eye contact can make others feel important and respected. In a group setting, eye contact helps the audience develop confidence in a speaker. At the same time, too much eye contact can come across as aggressive. As such, business leaders should work on timing their eye contact. Studies show that eye contact is ideally maintained for about 50 percent of a conversation, particularly while listening to someone else speak.
Moreover, Colgate University neuroscientists found that gesturing has an intimate link with trustworthiness. When gestures contradict the verbal message, listeners lose confidence. For example, leaders should not cross their arms as they talk about their openness.
Reading nonverbal communication is an invaluable skill.
When it comes to nonverbal communication, leaders need to spend as much time interpreting the messages that other people send as checking their own. When we begin to pay attention to body language, we may be surprised at how much of the conversation we’ve missed out on in the past. This skill becomes particularly important when employees say they are on board with an idea but actually have hesitations. Addressing these issues up front maximizes engagement. Employees who do not believe in an idea will not give their all to it, which can, in turn, lead to its failure.
Additionally, we show our agreement when we nod our heads and maintain an open body posture. Someone who says they agree but sits with their arms crossed or avoids eye contact may have some doubts—subconscious or not. It’s best to address this with the employee now rather than later. However, it’s smart to avoid being too aggressive about calling out people who are not completely in agreement.
First impressions are forged in less than seven seconds.
In the business world, people generally form a first impression of someone in less than seven seconds. We have no power over the people making these snap judgments, but we can focus on making them positive. Because these first impressions happen so quickly, body language becomes extremely important. Researchers have found that nonverbal cues are more than four times more influential than verbal. To encourage the formation of a good impression, it’s best to smile as we meet someone and make some eye contact. Also, leaning forward into someone conveys engagement and interest, but it is important to respect personal space. Leaders should also always shake hands to establish rapport and keep their posture in check. A study from Northwestern University found that an open posture is regarded as more authoritative than the person’s place in the actual hierarchy.
People rely on nonverbal cues to communicate.
While technology like texting, e-mail, and video chat has made it easier than ever before to communicate, people still get the most information from face-to-face meetings. Humans are programmed to interpret nonverbal cues as much as verbal ones when processing a message. This happens because nonverbal communication provides the emotional nuance that underlies what we say. This nuance comes from facial expressions, gestures, tone, and more.
Furthermore, people typically pay attention to how others respond to them to determine whether what we say is being accepted or rejected. Research has shown that people with a good rapport start to match each other’s breathing rhythms and body positions. Without these interpersonal signals, communication becomes much more difficult, which can lead to a lot of confusion. Leaders should always try to hold important conversations and meetings in person to maximize the communication that occurs.