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The Silent Language of Leadership


Dr Carol Kinsey Goman - Expert Author

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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

Carol Kinsey Goman, an international Keynote speaker on collaborative leadership and the impact of body language in the workplace. Communications coach to executives to improve their leadership presence and effectiveness.
Leadership blogger for Forbes and author of "The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help - or Hurt - How You Lead.
Office: 510-526-1727
Berkeley, California

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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2009-11-25 13:36:40 in Personal Articles

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