The Silent Language of Leadership
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The chief executive officer of an oil company showed up at a refinery in a
designer suit and tie to discuss the firm's affairs with rank-and-file
operators, electricians, and members of the warehouse staff -- dressed in
their blue, fire-retardant overalls.
After being introduced and walking carefully to the front of the room, he
removed his expensive wristwatch (let's call it a Rolex) and quite visibly
placed it on the lectern. The unspoken message: "I'm a very important man, I
don't 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: "I'm happy to be with you today."
Which do you think those refinery workers believed . . . the CEO's spoken
words or what his body language said?
All leaders express enthusiasm, warmth, and confidence -- as well as
arrogance, indifference, and displeasure through their facial expressions,
gestures, touch, and use of space. If an executive 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.
When a leader stands in front of a thousand 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 leader's gestures are produced
before or as the words come out, she appears open and candid. However, if
she speaks first and then gestures (as I have seen many executives do) it's
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 employee's 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.
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 find
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 reflection
of a person's internal state. In fact, the more someone tries to control
emotions, the more likely they are to leak out nonverbally.
Here's 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 wasn't his words -- they were carefully chosen and well
rehearsed. It was, rather, how he looked when he spoke. Mechanical in all
his gestures, this man's body was screaming: "I'm uncomfortable and
unconvinced about everything I'm saying!"
The question: Could I help?
The answer: Not much.
Oh sure, I could find ways to make his movements less wooden and his timing
more fluid. But if a person doesn't 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
company's 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 isn't said."
About the Author
Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.is an international
Keynote speaker on collaborative leadership and the impact of
language in the workplace.
coach to executives to improve their leadership presence and
Leadership blogger for Forbes and author of "The Silent Language of
Leaders: How Body Language Can Help - or Hurt - How You Lead.”
Carol@CarolKinseyGoman.com Authors Google+
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2009-11-25 13:36:40 in Personal Articles