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.”


Merger Double Duty

August 9, 2014

small babies twins on parental hands isolated on white backgrounThe announcement of a merger can send people scurrying to their offices to begin piling up sandbags of defense against the flood of change.

Many mergers are handled with all the sensitivity of a Gestapo raid. The story below may seem extreme, but it literally goes on in many organizations that rush into a takeover.

In the planning phase of the merger, top management has a gag rule on information because they are afraid people would panic if they knew what was going to happen.

They are convinced that to avoid sabotage, and other problems, it is best to keep things “under wraps” until the merger is ready.

Rumors start as a result of all the secret meetings. Layoffs are expected, because one primary result of a merger is to consolidate staff positions.

People are aware of this and hope they will be one of the survivors. In reality, some people are smart enough to hope they do not survive.

Top brass announces the merger, but it is really not a shock to the people in the organization. They are just glad to have the news out in the open. Being held in the dark is a most uncomfortable feeling. Now, at least people will know if they are “impacted” or not.

The dreaded day approaches and finally arrives. The boss calls the impacted people in one by one to tell them the bad news.

Guards walk them back to their area to get belongings and escort them out the gate. A quick handshake and the exchange of the employee pass is all it takes to complete the deal.

Oh sure, there is the promise of support from HR: “Go to a place off company property over the next week, and we will help you network in the community for another job.”

A packet arrives in the mail to sign up for COBRA Insurance to tide over the family. I would have thought they would call it BOA CONSTRICTOR Insurance rather than COBRA Insurance. At least that title would fit the reality.

A remaining employee, let’s say Mary, breathes a sigh of relief until the boss calls her into the office and says,

“As you know, we have let Jake go, so you will now cover his responsibilities.”

Mary says, “But I already have a full workload of customers, and I don’t know anything about Jake’s job.”

The insensitive Boss says, “Just do the best you can, and remember, as one of our most talented people, you still have a job here.”

In a daze, Mary wanders into Jake’s empty office. She looks around and shakes her head. “Well, I might as well dig in here and see what Jake’s job entails.”

She looks halfheartedly into Jake’s desk drawers, throws out an old can of shoe polish, and starts trying to make sense of the mess. She looks at the 4-drawer file of Jake’s former customers, now her responsibility.

Think about this scene. Have you ever tried to decipher someone else’s files with no crossover? It is impossible.

The sound of the phone ringing in her office wakes Mary up. She runs down the hall and grabs the phone in time.

It is the familiar voice of one of her own customers. Thankfully, she is able to answer the question and satisfy the concern. She does a double take and realizes that there are 14 messages on her answering machine from the past two hours.

She starts clearing out her backlog and becomes totally engaged in her old job – the one she knows and can handle.

Every day for the next several weeks, Mary goes to Jake’s office for a couple hours (usually including her lunchtime) in a feeble attempt to keep the most vocal customers in Jake’s area from blowing up.

There is little understanding or history to back up her actions, so she is not very effective. It is impossible to keep up with Jake’s workload in a couple hours a day, so Mary focuses most of her attention on the job she understands.

Customers eventually write nasty e-mails to the top manager who jumps all over the area manager. Customers are taking their business elsewhere because there is no service being rendered.

The boss rushes into Mary’s office and says, “Mary, you are not performing like your usual self. We have customers that are your responsibility who are defecting. I know you are super busy, but you simply cannot afford to ignore customers who are in need.”

Mary says, “You are right, Bill. I cannot. Another thing I cannot afford is to work here for you any longer. My family and my doctor tell me I am heading for a stroke, and I am simply unable to perform what is expected. Therefore, I am handing in my two week’s notice.”

Note the simple but inevitable consequence of a decision by top management to ignore transparency out of fear. The old saying, “penny wise and pound foolish” applies in this case.

The company lost valuable customers and one of its most valuable employees. In addition, this situation is going on multiple times in the work unit, because Mary was not the only one whose work load doubled with no training.

There is no way to make up for this damage. It is a major blow to the business; in many cases it is fatal.

The fault here is not the merger itself. It is the veil of secrecy around the planning that was the major culprit. That is silly because holding back information really did not prevent it from becoming common knowledge.

Limiting transparency made the damage much worse than it could have been.

I am not saying that mergers are a picnic if people are informed ahead of time, and there are legal restrictions on how much information can be shared.

Many of the problems will occur no matter how the disclosure is handled, but if we contrast the above scenario with a slightly modified one, the result has the potential of a brighter outcome.

The area manager calls all employees together on day one. He says, “We are contemplating a transition, and we are probably going to need a layoff in the next few months.

None of us are happy about this, but it will probably happen. The best thing you can do now is focus on your job. As we plan for how many people will need to leave, I will keep you informed and be available for questions.”

During the next couple of weeks, the need for a layoff becomes clear. The boss calls Jake into the office and says, “Jake, as you know we are projecting a layoff. It looks like you will be impacted and either be let go or have to assume a different role.

I would like to work with you to find the best option for you and see if we can keep you in the company in a different role. I will do my best.

You should begin networking now, both inside the company and outside. In the meantime, can you please work with Mary to introduce her to your customer base?

I will tell her that we are combining her job with yours, but we will reduce her report writing duties to allow her more time to accomplish the combined area.”

In the discussion with Mary, the boss stresses that she is a highly valued employee being called on to stretch her influence with the customer base. A reduction in paperwork will provide some relief in order to allow her more face time with customers.

She will also receive a modest bump in pay as a result of the increased responsibility. She will inherit Jake’s accounts and should get up to speed on them over the next two weeks.

I grant that this second scenario is far from easy or painless for all parties, but the consequences are far less debilitating for the business.

By treating all employees like adults from the start and leveling with them, many of the problems in the first scenario were prevented.

The most significant reason for the difference between the two cases is that the top boss or HR function allowed the local manager to operate with transparency.


Announcing a Downsizing

July 21, 2013

AnnounceThe need for excellent leaders grows more urgent every day. I believe the most crucial shortage threatening our world is not oil, money, or any other physical resource. It is the lack of enlightened leaders who know how to build trust and transparency. We are at an all-time low in terms of the number of leaders who can establish and maintain the right kind of environment. The outrageous scandals of the past few years are only a small part of the problem. The real cancer is in the daily actions of the many leaders who undermine trust with less visible mistakes every hour of every day.

The current work climate for leaders exacerbates the problem. Most organizations have been forced to take draconian measures in a desperate struggle to survive. In these environments, the ability to maintain trust and transparency often is eclipsed by the extreme actions required to keep from going bankrupt. This conundrum is a unique opportunity to grow leaders who do have the ability to make difficult decisions in a way that maintains the essence of trust. One of the most complex situations occurs when there is a need to trim the current workforce. While there is no one formula that fits every situation, here are some ideas that might prove helpful if you are in that situation.

When a downsizing is going to be required, many managers wrestle with when and how to break the news to the work force. On the surface, it feels like the safer thing to do is to procrastinate on announcing the difficult news, which may be directionally the wrong way to go for the long term health of the organization.

Thankfully, there are processes that allow leaders to accomplish incredibly disruptive restructurings and still keep the backbone of the organization strong and loyal. It takes exceptional skill and care to accomplish this, but it can be done. The trick is to not fall victim to the conventional ways of surgery that have been ineffective numerous times in the past. Yes, if you need to, you can cut off a leg in the back woods with a dirty bucksaw and a bottle of whisky, but there are far less painful, safe, and effective ways to accomplish such a traumatic pruning.

One tool is to be as transparent as possible during the planning phase. In the past, HR managers have insisted that the risk of projecting a need for downsizing or reorganization might lead to sabotage or other forms of rebellion. There are also legal considerations with premature divulging of information, so there is a balance that must be considered. The irony is that, even with the best secrecy, everyone in the organization is well aware of an impending change long before it is announced. Just as nature hates a vacuum, people find a void in communication intolerable.

Not knowing what is going to happen is an incredibly potent poison. Human beings are far more resilient to bad news than to uncertainty. Information freely given is a kind of anesthesia that allows managers to accomplish difficult operations with far less trauma. This can be helpful for three reasons: 1) it allows time for people to assimilate and deal with the emotional upheaval and adjust their life plans accordingly, 2) it treats employees like adults who are respected enough to hear the bad news rather than children who can’t be trusted to deal with trauma and must be sheltered from reality until the last minute, and 3) it allows time for the people who will be leaving to train those who will inherit their work. All three of these reasons, while not pleasant, work to enhance rather than destroy trust.

One caveat is that pre-announcing a downsizing may cause some of the best people to go job hunting elsewhere. The wise manager understands this and makes sure the critical resources know their situation is secure. It is better to have a forthright discussion about the situation and future than to have people making assumptions based on speculation.

Full and timely disclosure of information is only one of many tools leaders can use to help maintain or even grow trust while executing unpleasant necessities. The method is not universal for every situation and culture, but it will have merit in many situations and should at least be considered as an option. My study of leadership over the past several decades indicates the situation is not hopeless. We simply need to teach leaders the benefits of trust and transparency and how to obtain them.