Our bodies are constantly speaking for us, whether we want them to or not. People who know you well are probably best able to decipher your body language, but you show bodily cues all the time, even (and maybe especially) to the people you work with. Whether you’re nervous about an impending deadline, annoyed at a co-worker who’s not pulling his or her weight, or ecstatic about good news from home, you’re sending out a steady stream of signals that reveal your internal state. A new paper on nonverbal communication in the workplace by University of Ottawa’s Silvia Bonaccio and colleagues (2016) tells us a bit more about this fascinating area of research.
Before we get to her findings, stop and think about other examples that show the importance of nonverbal communication: During and after the September 26, 2016 debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the media pounced on several distinct messages the candidates sent out via their body language. Clinton did a little “shimmy” at one point to celebrate one of Trump’s negative comments about her, but also maintained a calm and poised exterior demeanor throughout most of the debate. Either instinctively or through coaching, she knew how to project an image that balanced authority with approachability. Trump was less able to maintain his outward composure. He had frequent facial grimaces, shifted his body behind the lectern, anxiously sipped water, and infamously snorted into the microphone. When he didn’t agree with what was being said, he showed his displeasure with every twitch of his upper body. In the second debate on October 9, 2016, his bodily cues extended to his adoption of a hulking posture when his opponent was speaking.
One would hope that should you be in such a highly visible position, your body and face would cooperate and allow you to look the part of whatever it is you’re trying to convey. Some people are instinctively better than others at this, and if you’re not blessed with this ability, it may take some effort—and the Bonaccio et al., paper offers some very helpful pointers.
To clarify, nonverbal communication isn’t just what you don’t say. People can communicate verbally with their gestures (as with American Sign Language) and while speaking by accentuating their speech with certain intonations, such as “uptalk." Bonaccio also points out that verbal and nonverbal communication often interact, such as when you nod to show you agree, inadvertently show fear between your brows while talking to someone who intimidates you, slap someone on the back following a joke, or say that you’re fine while you wipe away tears.
With these clarifications, let’s look at the five major functions of nonverbal communication and how they translate into what goes on in the workplace:
1. Displaying personal attributes in your nonverbal behavior.
Your body language reveals information about your personality, intentions, and attitudes, according to Bonaccio. But you’re somewhat damned if you do and damned if you don’t exhibit these in your behavior. People who are impossible to read are perceived by co-workers as stiff or uninterested in their work, in other people, or both. So-called “thin slices” (brief glimpses) of a person’s behavior can be a pretty good indicator of someone’s actual social skills. Like it or not, people make inferences all the time about these and other characteristics, and do so with amazing speed.
If you want someone to like you in an interview situation, Bonaccio’s study suggests that you use a firm, brief handshake, smile, make eye contact, gesture somewhat with your hands, show expressiveness (but not too much) with your face, and nod your head. Even when the person doing the hiring is instructed to follow a standard interview protocol, these nonverbal cues become an important part of the process. For women, in particular, it’s important to show your competence with a gesture, such as a firm handshake, rather than simply by bragging about yourself and your accomplishments.
2. Showing who’s the boss.
Nonverbal cues provide information about the social hierarchy in a given setting, particularly in a workplace where there is a “vertical” dimension of relationships. You show power through your stance (“power posture”) and through how much you talk, interrupt, make eye contact, use an assertive vocal tone, and seem serious in your facial expressions. Unfortunately, for women, some of these nonverbal cues can backfire. Compared to men, women who show their higher power by talking more are negatively perceived by others, as are women who become visibly angry.
To translate this into gaining greater understanding of your own nonverbal behavior, see whether you really are asserting yourself when you intend to and showing submissiveness when you’re not. Do you inadvertently pull a power pose when you’re talking to your boss? This might not be the best strategy. Instead, show respect by adopting a less aggressive stance. Because gender roles also enter into the equation, take into account, if you're a man, whether you’re trying to overpower your female supervisor. If you’re a woman, the path to showing dominance is considerably trickier. Be aware of how and when you use your body to communicate who’s the boss and who is not, and adjust according to yours and the gender of those around you. Cultural norms also come into play: As Bonaccio points out, putting your feet on the desk in the American workplace communicates power, but this is not true in East Asian culture.
3. Encouraging people to follow your lead.
You can contribute to a positive environment by getting others to follow your lead through your nonverbal cues. The charismatic leader, Bonaccio points out, uses strong delivery of messages, while showing enthusiasm, confidence, and capability. Good leaders seem to be likable and interested in others, and may even imitate the nonverbal behaviors of others. Their body language conveys passion and the expressions on their faces are consistent with the words they use to deliver their messages.
If you want to get others to join your cause, whether it pertains directly to work tasks or maybe an attempt to sign people up for a charity run, be sure you use your nonverbal communication to inspire and draw others into supporting the effort. You can also use this knowledge about charismatic leadership to understand why your boss is having trouble motivating your team to work harder or better. Not everyone has this capacity, so it might mean that you have give yourself extra motivation when it doesn't come from your boss.
4. Promoting harmony.
Getting along with co-workers in so-called “horizontal” relationships is another important function you can promote through nonverbal communication. You build trust by using your body cues to establish rapport, draw others into your circle, and mirror the nonverbal behaviors of others; for example, posing the same way they do while standing.
One important feature of harmony, Bonaccio points out, is compassion. You can demonstrate that you care for others through “gentle nonthreatening touch” (p. 1062) while you express your concern for them in the words that you use. If a co-worker tells you a sad story about an ill parent or child, the message your body sends out should be consistent with the empathy that you feel for the person’s situation.
5. Displaying emotion.
The way that you express your emotions through nonverbal cues can, according to research cited by Bonaccio, directly influence the way that other people experience theirs. For example, if you seem distressed after talking to your boss, you’re communicating to others that there may be trouble on the horizon. However, more generally, expressing emotions can have a wide range of effects on everything from productivity to whether a customer provides a large tip to a waitperson.
When you display your emotions, your communication will have more beneficial effects if what you show on your face and body is consistent with what you’re actually feeling. If you try to disguise your emotions by putting on a false set of expressions, people will catch on. And the more you try to disguise those emotions, the more likely it is that your true emotions will “leak out” in small, almost indiscernible expressions. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to accomplish this, which is why people in service industries may suffer from the exhausting effects of “emotional labor.” Either way, being conscious of what you’re feeling and how you’re showing it contributes to a more positive atmosphere.
Bonaccio, S., O’Reilly, J., O’Sullivan, S. L., & Chiocchio, F. (2016). Nonverbal behavior and communication in the workplace: A review and an agenda for research. Journal of Management, 42(5), 1044-1074. doi:10.1177/0149206315621146
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016