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How Leaders Can Use Body Language to Improve the Workplace

Leadership is a process of influence. It demands from a leader the development of relationships with followers so that they feel inspired and motivated to accomplish the goals and objectives of the organization and, at the same time, feel good and satisfied with their jobs. So says the theory.
The practical question is HOW? How can a leader do this? Offering a better workplace? Paying a better salary? Organizing more team building sessions? A recent study suggests that there is another, not properly standard, but effective, way to increase the employee superior performance and also to improve your perceived leadership (in case you are the one who is managing people) — your body language. The way HOW you say something appears to be as important as WHAT you say in making the employees more or less willing to do an extraordinary effort for you and for your company.

The study was done in 2015 at the Portuguese Military Academy. We wanted to check whether the nonverbal communication of the military leaders is related to the superior performance of their subordinates. And before you may say “Oh, but these data are from the military world. That has nothing to do with me!”, ask yourself whether you have ever performed any of the following gestures: Have you ever listened to anyone with crossed arms? Do you smile or not? Is it easy for you to establish eye contact? I guess you have.

So, if you are looking for a new and effective way to improve the satisfaction of your co-workers and to aspire your employees to do an extraordinary effort consider that these gestures can have a positive and negative correlation with your leadership and employees’ satisfaction. In fact, you can improve the way your employees evaluate you in “self-confidence”, “self-control”, “courage”, “empathy” and “influence/reference”, by adding these simple gestures into your daily communication:

Make eye contact. The more you look into the eyes, the higher is your perceived leadership. Your subordinates (employees) see you as more confident, controlled, courageous, empathetic; their performance is higher.

Sounds fine. Especially if you remember that Robovie, a humanlike robot developed by Japan’s Osaka University, was taught to use eye contact to guide the conversation as humans do. Those at whom the robot gazed for longer took more turns speaking, those to whom Robovie sent acknowledging glances spoke less, and those who were ignored completely spoke the least. This pattern was consistent 97% of the time. Why? People feel encouraged when you look at them, they speak more, they feel more valuable.

Smile! Yes, even military people like smiling people, according to our data. Smiles are contagious, they are welcomed and they can improve your leader’s image and your employees’ superior performance.

Now, is there any gesture that can affect negatively one’s leadership? Yes, not much, but you can see them everywhere. And, I guess, you have used them once, at least,

Gestures that can Have a Negative Effect:

Crossed arms. To cross or not to cross, that is not a question (anymore). According to the recent study, the officers who talk with crossed arms are perceived as less confident and empathetic. When the officers listen to others with crossed arms, they are perceived even more negatively: leaders like these lose in confidence, control, empathy and they don’t really serve as a reference. On top of that, the subordinates neither really want to do an extraordinary effort nor they feel satisfied. Sounds outrageous? Just a little bit. Still, it is very logical at the same time. Think, how can you inspire others with crossed arms?! Is there anything, in fact, you can do with crossed arms?!

Pointing with the finger. This gesture has a negative impact on the subordinates’ perception of “self-confidence”, “self-control”, “courage”, “empathy” and “influence/reference” of their commanders. In this case, the factors “extraordinary effort” and “satisfaction” are also negatively affected.

Surprised? Wait a little bit. Our last study done in 2016 found that pointing with the finger is one of the most aggressive gestures – 77% of our respondents told us that they consider a person pointing at them as aggressive. You don't mind when someone is pointing at you? The problem is that it is not about you. It's all about the people. And if you had a chance that 77 out of 100 people in the room would consider you pointing at someone as aggressive, better not to take the risk if your team spirit and your leadership are at stake.

Looks like there is a lot a leader should take into account to stay on top. But, as the Spider Man’s uncle, Ben, said “With great power comes great responsibility”…

So, what will be your next move?

Author: Irina Golovanova, Body Language Trainer | Coach at the Body Language Academy

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