Body Language 67 Afraid

February 14, 2020

A person who is experiencing fear may show it in several different ways with his or her body language.

In this article I will highlight the most common ways people express fear without speaking. First, we need to understand that there are an infinite number of different sources and magnitudes of fear.

You might be afraid that the rumor you heard about a layoff this month could be true. Depending on your seniority and several other factors, you could be afraid of losing your job.

On the other extreme, I may be convinced there is a thief with a gun in my apartment about to enter the room where I am trying to sleep.

The type and intensity of the body language signals will depend not only on the reason I am afraid but also my current ability to tolerate uncertainty and not show it. This spectrum of signals makes the interpretation of one’s body language signals a chancy endeavor.

As with all body language, when trying to interpret what you see, you need to take into account several factors:

1. Is there a cluster of signals that all point in the same direction? If so, that will greatly enhance a correct diagnosis

2. Is this person from a culture different from the one I am most familiar with? Although fear is a primal feeling, how it is expressed in body language can be unique to a specific culture. The likelihood of misinterpretation goes up dramatically if you are observing a person from a different culture than your own.

3. Is the observed body language as a result of a specific stimulus or is it a habitual pattern for this person?

4. If there is a specific stimulus, is the reaction immediately following the stimulus, or is there a delayed reaction?

5. Is the person picking up and mimicking another person who is making an overt signal of fear? If so, the gesture may not be genuine; it could be an imitation.

6. Is the person making an attempt to hide the emotion, or is the reaction obvious to everyone?

7. Is the person consciously attempting to look a certain way or is the reaction an unconscious and authentic gesture, at least at first?

These are the main factors that will influence the specific gesture in reaction to fear. Here are some of the common facial and body reactions to fear that we have all seen at some point.

Contorted Facial Muscles

The narrowing of the eyebrows and wrinkling of the forehead is a pretty good give away that the person is experiencing fear. You need to be careful though, because the same facial contortions are common with anger. Look for more corroborating signals.

Hands to the mouth

Usually both hands will go to the mouth when a person is experiencing high fear. It may take the form of symbolically biting the nails, or it may be to actually cover the mouth and eyes. The person is trying to disappear from sight.

Arms outstretched

Another gesture of fear is a kind of blocking motion made by outstretching the arms in front of the person with palms facing the thing being blocked. Here, the idea is to put up a figurative wall between yourself and the offending person, animal, or thing. In this gesture, the head may be lowered and shoulders raised as we cower in fear. The posture is to make yourself a smaller target.

Behind an object or blanket

Children will often express fear by hiding behind something, like a couch cushion or a blanket, then the gesture is to peek out ever-so-slightly from behind the safety of the screen. Adults often hide behind other items or excuses. If one is afraid of the outcome of an effort, the fear may be manifest in procrastination.

Open mouth

The mouth is usually open when a person is experiencing high fear. The idea is to give a symbolic primal scream, even if the sound is inaudible. People in fear do not look tight lipped, instead they normally will be showing their teeth.

In a business environment, be alert to less obvious, but symbolically equivalent signs of fear in a person. Reach out to determine the nature of the fear and attempt to engage the person in some dialog about it.

The verbalization of fear and the brainstorming of ways to mitigate the angst are both ways to calm the person down. Helping another person who is in mild fear regain his equilibrium is an excellent way to build rapport and trust.

Adults develop patterns to help them deal with fear in ways that may not show in overt body language. They use compensating actions, and if you can recognize these signs, you can address the underlying cause to help the person, even though no specific physical signals are evident.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”


Body Language 63 Fist in the Air

January 17, 2020

The gesture of putting one’s fist in the air is a very common one, but it can cause misunderstandings if you do not couple it with corroborating signals.

Part of the confusion is that the different meanings are at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. For example, the fist-in-the-air gesture at a football game would normally be a way to cheer on your team to victory, while if there were protesters outside the stadium, that same gesture could signify rebellion, hatred, or anger.

In order to ascribe the correct meaning to the fist-in-the-air gesture, you must factor in the context in which it is given and most importantly the facial expressions that accompany it.

When this gesture is seen in public, it is normally part of a group activity where many people are giving the same signal. It is possible to observe the gesture on the part of just one person, but that is rare.

In this brief article, I will describe several applications where the fist in the air might be observed along with the most likely message being sent.

A cheer of support

A fist in the air can be a supportive gesture among team members similar to a high five. It means we are all together, and we are united in a common cause. We support each other and cheer each other on with the gesture.

For example, you might see a sales team at their convention use this gesture when it is announced that the team met the aggressive sales goal for the year. Everyone would enjoy the year-end bonus as a result of reaching the challenging goal.

Appreciation

You can witness the fist in the air gesture among adoring fans at a rock concert. You will see many people in the audience highly animated jumping up and down with their fists in the air as they sing along to the lyrics.

Defiance

You can also see the fist in the air at political or social rallies. The connotation here is still that we are united in a purpose, but in this case it is often a negative form of protest.

In the Workplace

Workers can display their anger over a new policy being introduced by having many people in a meeting start showing their fists in the air.

At times like this, the leader who is conducting the meeting needs to see the anger building up and make a preventive statement before the gesture is taken up by most of the workers and it becomes like a mob scene.

For example, the leader might see one person starting to put his fist in the air and say something like:

“I know this is not going to be a popular move, but I wanted to share the information with you candidly as early as possible, because you have a right to be informed of the action. You also have the right to understand the reason this action was unavoidable. I will explain some ways we can get through this difficult time together.”

Warning

A fist in the air done by an individual may be a warning to keep physical or emotional distance. The idea here is to tell the other person to back off or face a possible sock in the jaw. The gesture may be accompanied by a shaking of the fist as the wicked witch did in “The Wizard of Oz.” As she shook her fist she cackled, “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too.”

In a work setting, you can avoid this kind of acrimony by having acceptable behaviors identified in advance. If the whole team has agreed to treat each other respectfully, then the threats or warnings will be fewer.

Hate

When the gesture is coupled by a stiff arm, it is more serious and an indication of extreme prejudice against a person, group, or ideal. Another dead give away for this attitude is the facial expression. If the person looks angry, then chances are he is expressing some form of hatred.

The news showed an example of that at a White Supremacists Hate Rally at University of Virginia in 2017. Many of the marchers had their fist in the air as they chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

I once witnessed a large group of union workers with their fists in the air to express frustration and lack of trust with the management group. This public display of extreme disapproval was a major setback for the organization. It took months of effort to rebuild the respect of these workers.

The lesson here is to intervene with corrective measures before the frustration boils up to the point where people are shaking their fists in the air. Once people start using this gesture, it is a long and expensive road back to stability.

There are numerous examples of organizations that have pushed workers too far experience the push back of rebellion. The antidote is to build and maintain a culture of trust so that people feel heard and appreciated all along. That way the resentment never builds up to the boiling point.

Resolve or unyielding

When coupled with a clenched jaw and slight scowl, the fist in the air signifies an unyielding posture to what is going on. I am reminded me of the lyrics to a song, “I Won’t Back Down,” by the late Tom Petty:

I’ll stand my ground
Won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won’t back down.

You can see that there is a wide spectrum of possible meanings to a fist in the air gesture. You must be alert to the circumstances and the facial expressions to pick out an accurate meaning.

If you sense frustration building up, take special care to mitigate the damage before people start shaking their fists or you will be in for a long recovery. If you have managed to build trust by reducing the fear in your organization, you are less likely to need to take remedial actions.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”


Leadership Barometer 22 Be an Enabler

October 29, 2019

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Strong leaders are enablers

On this dimension there is a stark contrast between great leaders and poor ones. In organizations with great leaders, people view their leaders as enablers. They provide a clear and believable vision of the future that is truly compelling to the workers.

They provide the resources and support required to reach that vision. They engage and empower people to put their best efforts into the journey toward success.

They celebrate the small wins along the way. If there is a problem, the leaders work to reduce or eliminate it.

Strong leaders also enable trust by creating a SAFE environment where people are not afraid to express their true thoughts.

Weak leaders are the opposite

When leaders are weak, you see the exact opposite. Leaders are viewed by the employees as barriers. They get in the way of progress by invoking bureaucratic hurdles that make extra work.

They use a command and control philosophy that stifles empowerment. There is a foggy vision or the vision is not that exciting to employees. Like if they struggle to make it happen, the result will not be so great.

Weak leaders destroy trust by creating fear within their organization.

A real example

I felt that kind of leadership in my final years with a company I once worked for. The vision was very clear; they had to shrink their way to success. That meant huge stress and more workers who would be let go year after year.

What an awful vision! I left and never looked back. In organizations with that kind of vision, people feel they are operating with both hands tied behind their backs. Fear lurks around every corner.

This condition leads to poor performance, and so the leaders pour on more and more pressure to compensate. It is a viscous circle that reminds me of the water funnel in a toilet. In fact, it is very much like that.

If you want to measure the caliber of a leader, just start asking the people in the organization if that leader is an enabler or a barrier to progress. Their answer will tell you quickly how talented that leader is.

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.


Leadership Barometer 21 Build a Safe Environment

October 18, 2019

 Here is one of my favorite measures for the quality of a leader.

Build a SAFE Environment

In most organizations, there is a continual environment of fear. What we need to realize is that there are different kinds of fear. There is the fear due to market conditions or competition that may make a company go bankrupt.

We have learned over the past decade that just because a company is great now is no guarantee it will even exist in a year or two. There is really no such thing as lifelong job security anymore.

Longevity not guaranteed

As an example, look at Circuit City. In the early years of the 2000’s, it was on top of the heap, and even qualified as one of the “Great” companies in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. By 2008, the company was history.

So, it is not surprising that few people feel the kind of job security that most individuals felt in the 80’s and 90’s. It is just a fact of life, and that kind of fear needs to be used to create the impetus to do better on a daily basis.

More common fear

The more crippling kind of fear is a nagging feeling that if I tell the truth about something to my boss, I am going to suffer some kind of punishment. It may not be an immediate demotion or dismissal, but eventually I will be negatively impacted in ways I may not even recognize.

So, I clam up and do not share thoughts that could be helpful to my organization.

Create the right culture

Great leaders create an environment where this kind of fear is nearly nonexistent. My favorite quote about this, that I note on my corporate website, is “The absence of fear is the incubator of trust.” In a culture where there is no fear, trust grows spontaneously, much like the mold on last week’s bread, only in this case, the mold is a blessing.

Reinforce candor

So, what is the mechanism by which great leaders create this lack of fear? They do it by “reinforcing candor.” They let people know they will not be punished for speaking their truth.

Reward rather than punish

On the contrary, these leaders show by words and deeds that people who speak up are actually rewarded for sharing something scary or just not right. That safety gives these leaders the opportunity to correct small problems before they have huge negative consequences for the organization.

That is brilliant leadership!

If you are a leader, focus on one thing when someone tells you something you did not want to hear.  Focus your actions on making the person glad he or she brought it up. That behavior is the most constructive thing you can do to build a culture of trust within your organization.

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.


Leadership Barometer 4 Absence of Fear

June 24, 2019

Here is a quick and easy way to measure the caliber of any leader.

Lack of Fear

Fear is the enemy of trust, and trust is what you must foster in order to be a great leader.  My favorite quote on this connection is “The absence of fear is the incubator of trust.”

In any group, if the leader creates an environment where there is very low fear, the trust will grow to a high level.  It is as reliable and unstoppable as the mold on last week’s bread.

Good leaders create an environment where there is less fear. That does not mean there is never any fear within the organization.

Sometimes scary stuff is needed in order for the organization to survive. But in those times of uncertainty, great leaders redouble their communication activities to keep people aware of what is going on.

In draconian times, it is the lack of solid reliable information that causes the most fear. When leaders are as transparent as possible, it leads to open communication. This practice means lower fear, and higher trust, even when things are not pleasant.

Nature hates a vacuum. If you have a bare spot in your lawn, nature will quickly fill it in with something, usually weeds. If you take a bucket of water out of a pond, nature will fill in the “hole” immediately. When you open a can of coffee, you hear the rush of air coming in to replace the vacuum.

So it is with people, if there is a void of information, people will find something to fill in the void – usually “weeds.”

That is why rumors attenuate in a culture of high trust. There is no fuel to keep the fires of gossip going. Leaders keep people informed of what is going on all the time. This transparency helps people vent their fears and focus on the tasks at hand, even if they are involved with unpleasant things.

Eliminating fear is much more than just sharing information openly.  Most fear in organizations comes from the feeling that it is not safe to voice a concern, especially if it is about something the leader wants to do.

There is ample evidence in most organizations that people who voice their concerns about what the leader is doing get punished in numerous ways. They learn to hold their observations inside rather than risk getting clobbered.

Trust cannot grow when people are fearful, so in most organizations, it is the lack of ability to be candid with the leader that hampers the growth of trust.

Contrast this pattern with one where the leader is enlightened to welcome and REWARD people for their candor, even if it is contrary to what the leader thinks is right at the moment.  In that kind of culture, trust grows because fear is extinguished.

If you see an organization where people know it is safe to express their opinions (in an appropriate way and time) it is the result of a great leader at work. If you see an organization where people are afraid to speak their truth, the leader of that organization is weak and has a potential to change and grow into a stronger leader.

 

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.


Leadership Barometer 3 Growth and Development

June 17, 2019

Here is another one of my quick and easy measures for the quality of leaders.

Growth & Development

Good leaders focus on the growth and development of people. If you want to test the caliber of a leader, just measure how much energy she spends on developing people. The concept is that there is vast reservoir of talent in all people that is ripe for development.

I estimate that all but the very best organizations typically get around 30% of the available energy and talent of their workforce. My estimate may be a bit off, but not too far.

Think of this. It would mean that we can double the productivity of the workforce and still have people working at roughly 60% of their capacity. Wow, what a great way to improve output and lower costs!

Of course you cannot achieve 100% of the energy of all people all of the time. That would require so much Adrenalin it would kill everyone. But we really don’t need the 100%. I contend there is so much pent up potential in most organizations, the upside is huge.

What holds us back? Well, it is a lot of factors I am describing in this series. One of the key ones is whether people have been given the skills to do their best work. Good leaders know this and put a lot of emphasis in the development of people.

Interesting Contrast

You can contrast a development oriented leader with weaker leaders who do not seek to do much development. Weak leaders may be afraid that if they develop outstanding raw talent, they are in danger of being passed over by the newly-developed worker.

They may be too ignorant to realize that 1 hour in a good training program brings more than 3 incremental hours of productivity to the organization.

It may be that the organization is in such a state of panic, there is simply no time to develop people for the future. They simply need all hands on deck. This myopic viewpoint is similar to the orchestra playing their final numbers on the Titanic.

Look for the Following Important Signs

Another aspect of development is the degree to which the leader seeks to grow herself as an individual.

  1. Does she have a personal development plan that has been reviewed with her superior?
  2. Does she have discussion groups around some leadership or inspirational books?
  3. Is she enrolled in several professional organizations outside of work?
  4. Does she spend time going to at least one professional conference per year?
  5. Does she listen to recorded programs while driving?
  6. Does she regularly interface with professionals outside her organization on social networks?
  7. Does she have an active reading list?

All of these behaviors are signs of a person who is really interested in growing as a leader. When you see these signs, you know the person understands the value of continuous learning.

Leaders who want to develop others need to consider if they are modeling the above behaviors themselves.

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.


Leadership Barometer 2 Level of Trust

June 11, 2019

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.

Level of Trust

Good leaders create a legacy of trust within their organization. I have written elsewhere on the numerous hallmarks of an organization with trust as opposed to one that has no trust. But is there a quick and dirty kind of litmus test for trust? Think about how you would know if an organization has high trust.

You can do extensive surveys on the climate or call in an expensive consultant to study every nook and cranny of the organization, but that is not necessary.

All you need to do is walk into a meeting that is going on and observe what you see for about 5 minutes. You can get a very accurate view of the level of trust in what Malcolm Gladwell calls a “thin slice” of a few minutes watching a group.

1. Overall Body Language

Look at how the people sit. Are they leaning back with arms crossed and rigid necks, or are they basically leaning either in or toward the other people next to them?

2. Facial Expressions

Observe the look on the faces of people in the meeting. Can you see pain and agony, like they do not want to be there but are forced to endure the agony till the boss adjourns?

3. Tone of Voice

Listen to how people address each other. Is there a biting sarcasm that seeks to gain personal advantage by making other people in the room look small or do the people show genuine respect and even affection for each other?

4. Respect for the Leader

See how individuals interact with the leader. Is it obvious that everyone is trying to help the leader or are they trying to trip her up or catch her in a mistake? Do the participants show a genuine respect for the leader?

5. Lack of Fear

Is there a willingness to speak up if there is something not sitting right – for anyone, or is there a cold atmosphere of fear where people know they will get clobbered if they contradict the leader?

6. High Initiative

If there is work to be done are there eager volunteers or does everyone sit quiet like non-bidders at an auction?

7. Attitude

Is the spirit of the meeting one of doom and gloom or is the group feeling like masters of their own fate, even when times are rough?

These are just seven signs you can observe in only a few minutes that will tell you the level of trust within the group. That trust level is an accurate reflection of the caliber of the leader.

I used to tell people that I could tell the climate of an organization within 30 seconds of watching a meeting. You can actually see it in the body language of the participants. Would you agree with this assessment?

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.