Leadership Barometer 88 Read Body Language

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. You can spend a lot of time and money taking surveys to tell you the quality of your leadership.

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. These are not good for diagnosing problems or specifying corrective action, but they can tell you where you stand quickly. Here is one of my favorite measures.

 Read Body Language

Body language is extremely important when communicating with others and reading their emotions. This skill is critical for leaders to master. There is a ton of data on body language, and I have been studying the topic since 1977.  I still have much to learn.  The purpose of this article is to highlight some key ideas about body language in the hope that it will stimulate you to read more about it. 

Last year I wrote 100 blog articles on this topic.  Here is a list of the articles on Body Language. The list also has links to each individual article in case a particular title catches your interest.

Body Language is Ubiquitous

All people show body language in hundreds of ways all day long.  We reveal our emotions in ways we do not even realize ourselves.  For example, the dilation of your pupils has a wealth of information about your mental state, yet without a mirror, you have no way of knowing how dilated your pupils are.

In fact, most body language we display is subconscious, yet it is in plain sight for other people to see at all times. Reading the various signals accurately is a skill that is extremely helpful in all types of interfaces, especially for leaders. 

Body Language is More Powerful Than Your Words

Albert Mehrabian did a series of measurements over 50 years ago indicating that only 7% of the meaning we get in face-to-face conversation with another individual comes from our words. The remaining 93% of meaning comes from  tone of voice and body language. Mehrabian’s research focused on people who were speaking about their feelings or emotions.

When the words and body language do not agree, we always interpret meaning consistent with the body language rather than the words we use.

Body Language is Culture Specific

It is a mistake to rely heavily on body language cues when dealing with a person from a different culture.  Each culture has its own set of signals, and sometimes they are actually opposite. You need to be very careful when working in a mixed culture atmosphere that you are getting an accurate read of another person’s emotions. For example, if you are Inuit, shaking your head from side-to-side means “yes” and nodding it up and down means “no.” There are some good reference books that are helpful on this topic. One of my favorites is “How to Read a Person Like a Book,” by Gerard Nierenberg.

Look for a Cluster of Signals

One specific bit of body language is not enough to decode the meaning accurately.  It may be an indication, but to get a firm reading on the emotion, you need to see more than two synergistic signals indicating the same emotion. If you pick up a signal, check it out carefully before ascribing specific meaning.  

Avoid sending mixed signals.  When body language is incongruent, it confuses and often annoys people.  Trying to force a particular expression is dangerous because some of your natural signals will be fighting the opposing signals. For example, if you try to look happy when you really are not, it will show in many detectable ways.  Sending mixed signals also works against trust. Try to never put on a specific body language pose.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585-392-7763.

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