Body Language 58 Embarrassment

December 14, 2019

We have all experienced embarrassment at some point in our lives. It is part of the human condition, and it cannot be avoided.

There are an infinite number of reasons for being embarrassed. I will describe some typical categories of embarrassment, and reveal some typical body language signals that often accompany it.

If you are the embarrassed person, then recognize you are probably making these gestures without even being aware of them. If you are conscious of your own body language, you may be able to be less obvious about your embarrassment.

If you are witnessing a friend who is embarrassed, then recognize the symptom from these gestures and see if you can help the other person feel less shame.

Exactly how you go about that depends on the relationship you have with the other person and your own Emotional Intelligence to do or say things that are helpful. That approach will build more trust with the other person.

You did something unwise

This is the garden variety of embarrassment. It occurs when someone points out that you just did something stupid, or when you just realize it yourself. The body language signals include blushing, lowering the chin, sometimes a shiver, slight raising of the shoulders, mouth expression pulled back on both sides. The sum of body language expressions is to make yourself look as small as possible.

The other response is to cover the mouth and eyes with your hands, as in the picture. It is like you are trying to disappear from sight.

You are late

When you arrive at a meeting that has already started or you are otherwise late for an event, you likely experience some form of embarrassment. In most cases you will attempt to sneak in and sit down with as little fanfare as possible. Sometimes you are forced to make a public apology and try to explain your tardiness with some feeble excuse. It is best to just admit your mistake and try very hard to not make a habit of it.

If you are habitually late for commitments, it will lower the trust that other people have in you. In extreme cases people may start referring to you as, “The late George Peters” behind your back. That’s not a good thing.

You are caught taking the last cookie

Food, and consuming too much of it, are often the cause of some embarrassment. You go ahead and eat the cookie, but you really don’t enjoy it very much. You are trying hard to make the evidence disappear as soon as you can.

Realize that people are generally observing the actions of others, and trying to sneak some extra good stuff will lower their trust in you.

You forget someone’s name

This is a common cause for embarrassment that all of us experience from time to time. The level of embarrassment is significantly higher if you know the other person well and just forget the name for a moment. Normally, at a time like this you will make leading gestures for the other person to talk so the tension can be broken. As the other person talks, you often will remember the name and say it at the earliest possible moment.

Don’t get hung up if you occasionally do this; just recognize it happens to all people. Others will cut you some slack unless you keep doing the same thing.

Personally, I find some names trip me up more than others, When I find a person whose name I tend to forget, I try to create an analogy or connection that leads me to the name. For example, I once knew a person named Jack, and I often would struggle when reaching for his name. I started picturing him having a flat tire and needing a car jack to fix it.

You did something that you immediately know is wrong

In these situations, it is common to bang your forehead with the palm of one hand. The connotation is that you are trying to knock some sense into your brain while you ask yourself, “how could I be so stupid?”

You trip or walk in a funny way

Here the problem is one of balance. You are trying to act distinguished and composed, but you just nearly fell flat on your face because you tripped over your own feet. In these cases, it is normal to make a kind of shrug motion and put on a silly face, like a clown. The connotation is “What additional clumsy motions can I find to entertain you?”

The same body language occurs when you make a clumsy move while dancing or making a grand entrance down a spiral staircase. You may try to act like a buffoon to get out of the embarrassment.

Your fly is down

Clothing malfunctions provide endless opportunities for you to be embarrassed. You make the correction but try to do it with as little fanfare as possible. Then you quickly change the subject.

When you notice a clothing issue with another person, it is often best to just ignore it unless you know the person very well. Use the golden rule when deciding whether or not to suggest a correction. Ask yourself if the situation were reversed, would you want the other person to tell you that your shoe is untied?

You spilled the gravy

Often embarrassment can occur at the dining table as you are trying to act refined but the soup dribbles down your chin onto the tablecloth. The general reaction to this is to distract people from focusing on you. You try to deflect attention in a different direction while you clean yourself up and move a dish to cover the spot on the tablecloth.

I was once at a formal luncheon, and someone asked me to pass the salad dressing. As I picked up the dressing, I was paying more attention to the conversation and did not recognize that the dressing was in a gravy boat that was on a tray. The vessel was top heavy with the dressing, and the whole thing tipped over, splashing the dressing all over the table, and several of the people sitting near me. Now that is embarrassing!

There are hundreds of examples in life where we have to deal with embarrassment. The best advice is to recognize that everyone else in the room has experienced these problems at some point. Just get through the awkward moment and do not dwell on the mistake. Unless you habitually do clumsy things, most people will cut you some slack.

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


Leadership Barometer 9 Admit Mistakes

July 29, 2019

Nobody likes to admit a mistake, but it can be a very powerful way to build trust, especially for leaders.

There are lots of ways to gauge the quality of a leader. One of my favorites is how readily the leader is willing to publicly admit a mistake.

Admits Mistakes

All leaders make mistakes. Few leaders relish the opportunity to publicly admit them. I think that is wrong thinking. For many types of mistakes a public “mea culpa” is a huge deposit in the trust account. Of course, there are types of mistakes that should not be flaunted before the general population.

For example, if a mistake is similar to one that a leader has made several times in the past, it is not a good idea to stand up in front of a group and say, “Well folks, I did it again.”

Likewise if a mistake is such a bonehead move it brings into question the sanity of a leader, it is not a good idea to admit it. But barring those kinds of issues, if an honest mistake was made, getting up and admitting it, apologizing, and asking for forgiveness is cathartic.

I once had the opportunity to call people together and admit a mistake I had made in a budget meeting the previous day. People were not happy to hear the news that I inadvertently gave away $10K, but I did have a steady stream of people come to my office later to tell me my apology was accepted and that my little speech resonated positively with my subordinates.

Reason: people do not expect leaders to apologize, because it is rarely done. You catch people off guard when you do it, and it has a major impact on trust.

Apologizing to your superior

Apologizing upward is another tricky area that can have a profound impact. The same caveats for apologizing downward apply here; if a mistake was plain stupid or it is the same one you have made before, best not admit it to the boss or some serious damage might result.

But if you have made an honest mistake, admitting this to the boss can be a big trust builder. This is especially true if the boss would never know unless you told her.

I recall a situation in my career where I had inadvertently divulged some company information while on a business trip in Japan. Nobody in my company would ever know I had slipped in my deportment, but it bothered me.

I took some special action to mitigate the mistake and then went hat in hand to my boss. I said, “Dick, I need to talk to you. I made a mistake when I was in Japan last week. You would never know this unless I told you, but here is what happened…”

I then described how I let a magazine be copied where I had written some notes in the margin. I described how I retrieved the copy and was given assurances that other copies had not been made.

My boss said “Well, Bob, you’re right, that is not the smartest thing you ever did.” He then said, “The smartest thing you ever did was to tell me about it.”

That short meeting with my boss increased his trust in me substantially, and I received several promotions over the next few years that I can trace to his confidence in me.

Granted, his confidence was influenced by numerous good things I had done, but by admitting something that I did not need to do, the relationship was strengthened rather than weakened. This is powerful stuff, but it must be used in the right way at the right time for the right reason.

After making a mistake most leaders try to hide it, downplay the importance, blame others, pretend it didn’t happen, or use some other method to try to weasel out of it. Often these actions serve to lower trust.

Obviously it is a stupid strategy to intentionally make mistakes so you can admit them to other people. For all of us, mistakes will happen naturally from time to time.

Consider taking the opportunity to apologize publicly; often it is a great way to build trust. Use this technique carefully and infrequently, and it can be a positive influence on on your career and a verification of the quality of your leadership.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations.


Is Transparency Situational?

May 18, 2013

TranspaarencyOne of the buzzwords for Organizational Development these days is “transparency.” The concept is that organizations can gain higher trust with all stakeholders if they are more open and less secretive. The correlation between higher trust, which also means better performance, and greater transparency has been well documented.

A great book on this topic is “Transparency,” by Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, and James O’Toole (2008). The authors make the case that creating a culture of greater candor improves performance by fostering higher trust. Bennis even extends the argument by pointing out that in today’s networked environment, transparency is going to happen even if leaders try to hide the truth, so they would be foolish to even try to be secretive.

Transparency makes a great discussion, because we are all aware that total transparency is not always a good thing. There are many times in life when not saying what you think will produce a better outcome. For those who would like some evidence, consider the TV advertisement where a man is reading the newspaper at the kitchen table. His wife comes into the room behind him so that he cannot see her. She is wearing a red dress that is three sizes too small for her, and she is bulging all over. She asks, “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?” Without looking away from the paper or toward her at all, he immediately replies, “You-betcha.” The response was good for transparency, but not too smart for the relationship. The ad was cute, but it was a marketing flop, because I cannot recall the product they were selling.

In an extreme case, like above, it is easy to tell when transparency is not wise, yet most of us would agree that more transparency in the corporate world would improve conditions. So, what are the rules for telling when it is better to keep things to yourself rather than blurt them out. Here are seven factors that can tip you off that it is perhaps better to not be transparent on a specific issue.

1. If the statement is unkind or cruel

Thinking a negative thought about another person or situation is a common occurrence. When we share that thought without regard to the feelings of another person, we run the risk of destroying rather than enhancing the relationship. Try to use the Golden Rule as a guide when to share improvement opportunities or observations that might be edgy.

2. If the statement is illegal

There are times when it is against the law to share some information. In the corporate world, this happens when the valuation of an organization might be materially altered if the information became common knowledge. Suppose an organization was considering a merger with another company. It would be illegal to talk about it ahead of time, so transparency in this case would be inappropriate.

3. If the statement is dumb

Consider a negotiation for a new contract. You know that your company would settle for $100,000. The other organization offers $150,000. A transparent response would be, “Well, that is acceptable because we were willing to go as low as $100,000.” Most of us would agree that kind of transparency is just dumb.

4. If other people do not want to know

Some individuals blab out their thoughts and feelings constantly, even when other people have no desire to hear them. If you are speaking, and people roll their eyes when you say, “Well, I think that…bla, bla, bla,” then you know that nobody really cares what you think about the subject, and it is better to keep it to yourself. Watch the body language of other people when you are being transparent to detect when you are going too far.

5. If you are being combative

Some people like to argue over numerous petty things. It is like a sport sometimes. This habit of sharing feelings in order to score points gets old quickly after people reach the saturation point. We used to call a person like this a PITA (stands for “pain in the rear”).

6. In times of a crisis

There are some situations where blurting out the full truth would cause a panic situation. I can recall one time being a waiter in a restaurant, and we discovered that a busboy had inadvertently put gasoline rather than kerosene into the glass table lamps. When the discovery was made, all of the lamps had been lit and were burning, so we decided to calmly remove the lamps one by one and replace the gasoline with kerosene out in the parking lot. We completed the work quickly and efficiently, and the diners were never aware of a problem at all. It was a calculated risk that might have backfired, but we figured if the lamps were working well when we discovered the problem, they would continue to work while we swapped them out. An alternative approach to be transparent and order everyone out of the building immediately may have resulted in one or more lamps being tipped over in the rush to get out, which could have caused loss of life and the entire building.

7. When the truth would do more harm than good

This is a delicate one that comes up from time to time in medical situations. Suppose there is an airplane crash, and you were a medical person tending a mother who was dying and had only a few minutes to live. She asks you if her son survived the crash. You suspect the son has died, but are not sure. You allow the mother to have more peace in her own death by saying, “We hope to be able to save him.” The fully transparent answer would be “We are pretty sure he is dead,” but the more humane response at least lets the woman have a little more hope in her final minutes.

In this analysis, I have gone from the obvious situations where being transparent is not the best approach to highly delicate conditions that call for instant value judgments and are quite subjective. If we move back to a corporate discussion, the observation is that most organizations would be better off by being more rather than less transparent. Let’s look at a classic example to illustrate the point: the announcement of a future layoff.

The senior leaders have decided that a layoff is needed to contain costs during a time of a substantial business downturn. They argue among themselves whether to announce the lay off in advance or wait until the day impacted people will have to leave. The argument for advanced warning is that people will have time to look for alternate work while they still have jobs. The argument for not announcing early is that there could be sabotage among people, and that since only 20% of people will be affected, why upset 100% of the employees. This kind of discussion goes on frequently in organizations, especially during difficult times.

While there is no “right” answer that is correct in all cases, I maintain that the more open approach will have a better result for most situations. There are three reasons for this:

1 ) When people are treated like adults who can take bad news and deal with it, they are more likely to remain calm and rational than if they are treated like children who must be sheltered from the truth.

2) If people are given time to find a better pathway to the future rather than mouse-trapped by an immediate layoff, they are generally grateful.

3) It allows for open cross training for the people who have to backfill.

The issue of transparency is an interesting one, because it is clear that always being totally transparent is not a good approach and having a totally secret approach is also stupid. Somewhere in the middle there are intelligent choices, and it is up to leaders to make the right ones for the situations at hand.


Stupid or Brilliant

May 13, 2012

I do a fun exercise in my leadership classes called “Stupid or Brilliant.” I go through a number of scenarios and specify an action that, on the surface, appears to be stupid. In each case, the loss of control would appear to be devastating from a risk point of view. I ask the participants to vote if the action was stupid or brilliant.

There are some examples where there is a documented correct answer, but most of the questions can lead to lively debate. Here is an example of a question with a real answer.

A doughnut street vendor at the base of a skyscraper in New York City noticed that the line was too long while people waited for him to make change. He was losing customers. He put out a box with change and small bills and a sign that read “In a hurry? Make your own change: I trust you!” At first glance, putting money out in trust in NYC would be stupid. People could just take the cash and go. Instead, the vendor found the strategy to be brilliant for three reasons:

1. The throughput of his vending operation increased by 50% because the line moved faster.

2. People started talking about his trust throughout the building, and they came out to buy from this honest vendor.

3. Many people would not even take the change. If their total came to $3.75, they would just put in a five dollar bill and walk away.

Other strategies for trusting people leave room for analysis. For example:

One consultant decided to charge only what the customer felt was appropriate after his work was done. He would leave the fee totally at the discretion of the people he was helping. This tactic defies negotiation logic because it ignores what is called the “call girl” principle of negotiation (the value of the service is greatly reduced after the service is rendered). Yet, this consultant generally did very well and often took away larger fees than he would have if he had negotiated a firm price before doing the work.

One organization was forced by market conditions to do some downsizing. They decided to allow the people being let go to continue to use their old office, computers, and cell phones for several months if they wanted while they looked for work elsewhere. Of course, there were a few stated rules about not being disruptive and honoring professional behaviors while on the premises, but other than that, the severed employees were treated the same as the ones retained. There was a risk, but the company found that in all but a few rare exceptions, the benefits far outweighed the risks.

You can carry blind trust to an extreme where a strategy is truly stupid. One example I give in my classes is this: The owner of a bar does not charge patrons per drink but asks each customer to keep track of what was consumed and pay at the end of the night. Obviously, most people vote for this as a “stupid” strategy. On the other hand, it would make an interesting experiment, because it may be possible that customers would pay more than required on average rather than pay less.

The point is that when we really do trust people to do the right thing, they often respond in ways that defy conventional wisdom. That logic is generally derived from a social norm based on a controlling philosophy. When given the chance, most people react with integrity and gratitude when we extend trust to them.

I have developed what I call the “First Law of Trust.” It is: “If you are unhappy with the level of trust others have toward you, the first corrective action is to find ways to extend trust more to them.” Trust is reciprocal in nature, so the best way to receive more trust is to give more. Try this technique with the people in your life, and you will see a dramatic increase in trust. Often what seems like an unwise risk to take will turn out to be rewarded by far greater loyalty than you can imagine.


Anti-Stupid Pill for Leaders

April 17, 2011

One of my leadership students laments that some of the decisions the leaders in his organization make relative to policies and size of workforce are just plain stupid. These decisions reflect a misunderstanding of their impact, so the leaders end up doing things that are at cross purposes to their true desires.

I told the student to buy some “anti-stupid” pills for the leaders to take, which will let them know when they do things that take them in the wrong direction. Then I realized that I already had discovered the “anti-stupid” pill several years ago and have taught leaders how to administer this magic potion for quite a while.

Leaders need a way to determine the impact of their decisions on the organization at the time of making those decisions. This knowledge will reduce the number of wrong-headed actions. Picture a leader of 84 individuals. There are exactly 84 people who are capable of telling her the truth about the impact of poor decisions before she makes them. They would gladly do this if the leader had established an environment where it is safe to challenge an idea generated in the mind of the leader. How would a leader go about creating such an environment?

If a leader makes people glad when they tell her things she was really not eager to hear, those people will eventually learn it is safe to do it. They have the freedom to level with the leader when she is contemplating something really dumb. It does not mean that all dumb things the leader wants to do need to be squashed. It simply means that if the leader establishes a safe culture, she will be tipped off in advance that a specific decision might backfire. Sometimes, due to a leader’s perspective, what may seem dumb to underlings may, in fact, be the right thing to do. In this case the leader needs to educate the doubting underling on why the decision really does make sense. Here is an eight-step formula that constitutes an anti-stupid pill.

1. As much as possible, let people know in advance the decisions you are contemplating, and state your likely action.

2. Invite dialog, either public or private. People should feel free to express their opinions about the outcomes.

3. Treat people like adults, and listen to them carefully when they express concerns.

4. Factor their thoughts into your final decision process. This does not mean to always reverse your decision, but do consciously consider the input.

5. Make your final decision about the issue and announce it.

6. State that there were several opinions that were considered when making your decision.

7. Thank people for sharing their thoughts in a mature way.

8. Ask for everyone’s help to implement your decision whether or not they fully agree with the course of action.

Of course, it is important for people to share their concerns with the leader in a proper way at the proper time. Calling her a jerk in a staff meeting would not qualify as helpful information and would normally be a problem. The leader not only needs to encourage people to speak up but give coaching as to how and when to do it effectively. Often this means encouraging people to give their concern in private and with helpful intent for the organization rather than an effort to embarrass the boss.

The leader will still make some stupid decisions, but they will be fewer, and be made recognizing the risks. Also, realize that history may reveal some decisions thought to be stupid at the time to be actually brilliant. Understanding the risks allows some mitigating actions to remove much of the sting of making risky decisions. The action here is incumbent on the leader. It is critical to have a response pattern that praises and reinforces people when they speak the truth, even if it flies in the face of what the leader wants to do. People then become emboldened and more willing to confront the leader when her judgment seems wrong.

A leader needs to be consistent with this philosophy, although no one can be 100%. That would be impossible. Once in a while, any leader will push back on some unwanted “reality” statements, especially if they are accusatory or given in the wrong forum. Most leaders are capable of making people who challenge them happy about it only a tiny fraction of the time, let’s say 5%. If we increase the odds to something like 80%, people will be more comfortable pointing out a potential blooper. That is enough momentum to change the culture.

It is important to recognize that making people glad they brought up a concern does not always mean a leader must acquiesce. All that is required is for the leader to treat the individual as someone with important information, listen to the person carefully, consider the veracity of the input, and honestly take the concern into account in deciding what to do. In many situations, the leader will elect to go ahead with the original action, but she will now understand the potential ramifications better. By sincerely thanking the person who pointed out the possible pitfall, the leader makes that individual happy she brought it up. Other people will take the risk in the future. That changes everything, and the leader now has an effective “anti-stupid” pill.