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 33 Downsizing Tips

January 13, 2020

Every organization deals with downsizing occasionally in a struggle to survive difficult economic conditions. These times are true tests of the quality of leadership.

In many cases, downsizing leads to numerous problems in its wake, especially lower trust.

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, especially when draconian actions are contemplated.

We are in need of more leaders who can establish and maintain the right kind of environment. A serious problem is in the daily actions of the leaders who undermine trust, even though that is not their intention.

The current work climate for leaders exacerbates the problem. The ability to maintain trust and transparency during workforce reductions is a key skill few leaders have.

Downsizing is a unique opportunity to grow leaders who do have the ability to make difficult decisions in ways that maintain the essence of trust.

Thankfully, there are processes that allow leaders to accomplish incredibly complex 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 backwoods with a dirty bucksaw and a bottle of whisky, but there are far safer, effective, and less painful ways to accomplish such a traumatic pruning.

One helpful tool in a downsizing is to be as transparent as possible during the planning phase. In the past, HR managers have worried that disclosing a need for downsizing or reorganization might lead to sabotage or other forms of rebellion.

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, and the concealment only adds to the frustration.

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.

Gossip and rumors generally make the problem bigger than it actually is, and leaders find themselves dealing with the fallout.

Human beings are far more resilient in the face of bad news than to uncertainty. Information freely given is a kind of anesthesia that allows managers to accomplish difficult operations with far less trauma. The transparency works 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.
3. It allows time to cross-train those people who will be leaving with those who will inherit their work.

All three of these reasons, while not pleasant, do serve to enhance rather than destroy trust.

Don’t humiliate people

Another tip is how to break the news to someone who will be terminated. One way to handle the situation is to ask yourself how you would like to be treated if the situation were reversed. Would you like to be paraded down the hall to pack a box with your possessions and escorted outside the gate and forced to hand over your keys and badge?

Many enlightened leaders have handled the separation in a more humane way. They break the news to the individual and share that the employee needs to find alternative employment. They may even offer assistance with ideas on where to look and offer for a reference.

Then, the employee is not immediately escorted off the premises, but is allowed to pack things up over the next several days and say good bye to friends and work colleagues. Some employers have even experimented with letting the impacted worker use the facilities and equipment for a short while during the job search.

HR managers will quickly point out the risks of having formerly employed workers on the premises, and it is true that the person needs to understand that if he or she is disruptive in any way, then the leaving will be immediate.

The idea is that when you treat separated employees with respect and kindness, even when the news is not good, they respond with a better attitude, which generally improves the outcome.

The more powerful result is that the employees who are not leaving are also impressed by the way these former colleagues were treated. That factor tends to bolster morale a bit for workers who are now asked to take up the slack.

Full and timely disclosure of information and thoughtful exit processes are only two of the many tools leaders can use to help maintain or even grow trust while executing unpleasant necessities.

My study of leadership over the past several decades indicates that the situation is not hopeless. We simply need to teach leaders the benefits of building an environment of trust and transparency and how to obtain them.

Robert Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust.


Leadership Barometer 31 12 Rules of Success

December 30, 2019

Several years ago I generated a list of rules for success. It is important to write down a set of rules for yourself, just as it is to document your values. It gives you something to hang on to when there is too much confusion.

Another benefit of a list like this is that it helps other people know how you operate much quicker. I would review this list and my passion for each item whenever inheriting or joining a new group.

• The most important word that determines your success is “attitude” – how you react to what happens in your life. The magic learning here is that you control your attitude, therefore, you can control your success.
• Engagement of people is the only way to business success.
• Credibility allows freedom to manage in an “appropriate” way (which means if you are not credible, you will be micro-managed).
• Build a “real” environment – maximize trust – This requires honesty and transparency.
• Create winners – help people realize their dreams of success (which means, grow other leaders).
• Recognize and reward results at all levels (reinforcement governs performance).
• Operate ahead of the power curve (which means, be organized and get things done well ahead of the deadline).
• Don’t get mired down in bureaucratic mumbo jumbo, negotiate the best position possible, out flank the Sahara. However, feed the animal when necessary (which means pick your political battles carefully).
• Enjoy the ride – when it is no longer fun – leave.
• Admit when you are wrong and do it with great delight. Beg people to let you know when you sap them and thank them for it (which means Reinforce Candor).
• Provide “real” reinforcement that is perceived as reinforcing by the receiver. Build an environment of reinforcement.
• Keep trying and never give up. You will succeed.

There are many other things that could be mentioned, but if you can master the things above, most other things become subcategories of them.

For example, another bullet might be “Treat people as adults and always demonstrate respect.” That is really a sub item of the second bullet. Or another bullet might be “Always walk your talk.” That is one thing (among many) you need to do for bullet four to happen.

I believe every leader should have a documented set of beliefs such as the one above. I am not advocating that you adopt my list. Think about it and develop your own list.

Don’t worry about being complete, just start an electronic file and add to it over the years as you grow and encounter new ideas. You will be amazed how this simple task enables you to operate with congruence and grow in your leadership skill.

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


Body Language 60 Behind Your Back

December 27, 2019

When you have your hands behind your back, it can be interpreted in several different ways. It often is interpreted as apprehension or frustration. Some people link the gesture with anger. You really need to look for additional signals to interpret this gesture.

When shaking hands

Normally we shake hands by extending the right hand forward to meet the other person. There are special circumstances, like a surgery, that force a different approach, but the usual configuration is with the right hand forward. What we do with the left hand is optional and may provide some insight.

According to body language expert Bill Acheson, what you want to see is the non shaking hand moving forward and slightly upward as the other person approaches. That shows a positive desire to meet you, according to Bill. He describes and demonstrates the movement in the referenced video.

What you do not want to see is the other person hiding his left hand by putting it behind his back or in his pocket. That shows a negative feeling toward you.

When you are hiding a secret

When you hold one or both of your hands behind your back, it is often interpreted as having something you are trying to hide. Generally the gesture is figurative, but it could actually be literal, as in when a man hides flowers behind his back as he rings the doorbell of his girlfriend.

A gesture of openness with the hands is with the hand extended slightly forward with palms up. Keeping the hands out of sight begs the question, “what is he hiding from me.”

At ease

In the military world, when soldiers are asked to assume the “at ease” position, it means to put both hands behind their back and stand with feet apart in a comfortable stance. The connotation for some people of putting their hands behind their back is an indication of standing in a relaxed position.

Don’t know what to do with my hands

For some people, the hands behind their back is simply that they are feeling awkward at the moment and do not know what to do with their hands. You can see this movement often with shy children when they are put in the spotlight.

Defenseless and Vulnerable

Hands behind the back leaves the solar plexus, the one part of the body that is not protected by a skeletal structure,open and vulnerable. It can, therefore, be a signal of submission.

The gesture of putting hands behind one’s back can have so many different meanings that, like most body language signals, you need to consider the circumstance or look for other corroborating gestures before trying to assign a specific meaning to the gesture. Also, just as with nearly all body language, the meaning can be specific to a particular culture.

For example, when you are meeting a businessman in the Netherlands, you should avoid standing with your hands in your pocket and never leave your left hand in your pocket while shaking hands with your right (1).

Once you start looking for it, you will see examples of the hands behind back gesture in many social and business settings. Just remember that you cannot assume a precise meaning to this posture without further information. For sure something is going on, but you will need to explore a bit to determine exactly what it is.

(1) Kiss Bow or Shake Hands by Morrison, Conaway, and Borden 1994

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


Leadership Barometer 29 Admitting Mistakes

December 16, 2019

One of the most powerful opportunities for any leader to build trust is to publicly admit mistakes.

The source of that power is that it is so rare for leaders to stand up in front of a group and say something like this:

“I called you here today to admit that I made a serious blunder yesterday. It was not intentional, as I will explain. Nevertheless, I failed to do the best thing for our group. I sincerely apologize for this and call on all of us to help mend the damage quickly. Without being defensive, let me just explain what happened…”

If you were in the audience listening to this leader, how would you react? Chances are your trust for the leader would be enhanced, simply by the straightforward approach and honesty of the statements.

Of course, it does depend on the nature of the mistake. Here are a few situations where an admission of a mistake would not produce higher trust:

• If the blunder was out of sheer stupidity.
• If this was the third time the leader had done essentially the same thing.
• If the leader is prone to making mistakes due to shooting before aiming.
• If the leader simply failed to get information that he should have had.
• If the leader was appeasing higher-ups inappropriately.

Assuming none of the above conditions is present and the mistake is an honest one, admitting it publicly is often the best strategy. There is an interesting twist to this approach that has often baffled me.

Let’s suppose that I have gathered 100 leaders into a room and asked them to answer the following question: “If you had made a mistake, which of the following two actions would have the greater chance of increasing the level of respect people have for you?

(A) You call people together, admit your mistake, apologize, and ask people to help you correct the problem.

(B) You try to avoid the issue, blame the problem on someone else, downplay the significance, pretend it did not happen, or otherwise attempt to weasel out of responsibility.

Given those two choices, I am confident that at least 99 out of the 100 leaders would say action (A) has a much greater probability of increasing respect.

The reason I am confident is that I have run that experiment dozens of times when working with leaders in groups. The irony is that when an error is subsequently made, roughly 80% of the same leaders choose action more consistent with choice (B).

The real conundrum is that if you were to tap the leader on the shoulder at that time and ask him why he chose (B) over (A), he would most likely say, “I did not want to admit my mistake because I was afraid people would lose respect for me.”

This situation illustrates that, in the classroom, all leaders know how to improve respect and trust, but many of them tend to forget that knowledge when there is an opportunity to apply it in the field. It seems illogical.

Perhaps in the heat of the moment, leaders lose their perspective to the degree that they will knowingly do things that take them in the opposite direction from where they want to go.

I believe it is because they are ashamed of making a mistake, but when you admit an error, it has an incredibly positive impact on trust because it is unexpected. Perhaps this is one of the differences between IQ and Emotional Intelligence.

Early in my career, I made a mistake on a trip to Japan and left some confidential information where it might have been viewed by those who could have used it against my company. Upon returning home, I went immediately to my boss and said, “I have to share that I did a dumb thing while I was in Japan last week.” He said, “What did you do”?

I told him the story of what happened and that my lapse could have caused some jeopardy for us. His response was, “Well you know, you are right, Bob. That’s not the smartest thing you ever did.” He said, “The smartest thing you ever did was to tell me about it.”

From that point on, I knew that he trusted me completely over the next 25 years. It was because I blew myself in when I didn’t have to. He would never have known what happened if I did not tell him.

Intellectually, many leaders know the best route to improve trust is to admit a mistake, but emotionally they are not mature or confident enough to take the risk.

When you admit an error, it has a positive impact on trust because it is unexpected. As Warren Bennis in Old Dogs: New Tricks noted, “All the successful leaders I’ve met learned to embrace error and to learn from it.”

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


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.”


Body Language 57 Time Out

December 6, 2019

The time out signal is a common hand gesture that is rarely misinterpreted, yet there are some subtle differences in meaning to discuss.

Let’s focus in on the different meanings first and then cover a highly useful application of the gesture in an organization setting.

Please stop talking

If another person is babbling on in a private setting or in a group meeting, you can signal it is time to stop talking and start listening by using the time out signal. This is a helpful use when you are having a hard time getting your points out.

The caveat here is that you would use the gesture sparingly. If you made the motion two or three times, it would most certainly annoy the person who is speaking. It would seem like you are cutting off the person.

Also, this use would be ill-advised if you used it to shut up a superior. If the boss wants to talk, it is usually a good idea to allow it.

I need time to think

When a lot of information is being shared in a steady stream, people sometimes need a break for their brains to catch up with the content. The time out gesture would let the presenter know it is time to at least slow down so all people can understand and absorb the content.

This topic is dangerous

You might warn a fellow worker that to pursue a certain line of reasoning is going to backfire. Rather than interrupt the person verbally, the time out signal will call the question and let the speaker know it would be wise to change the subject. You could accompany the hand signal with facial cues that indicate caution, just be sure to verify the right message was received and was not misinterpreted.

Time for a counterpoint

If one person is landing multiple points in support of a one-sided viewpoint and you want to allow some balance, the time out signal will provide that opportunity without saying any words.

Need a break

If, during a long presentation, you or others need to take a bio break, the time out signal can let the facilitator know it is time to take care of the bodily functions. Also, maybe the group just needs to stretch and take in some oxygen.

Call for a vote

If several arguments have been given on a hotly divided topic and you want to call for a vote, the time out signal can get that message out, even while the conversation is continuing.

Need to caucus

During negotiations, it is often necessary to separate teams to discuss strategy. The time out signal is useful for letting the parties know they need to separate for a while.

We are wasting time

Perhaps the most helpful use of the time out sign is in a meeting situation where one person in the room feels the group is spinning wheels going over the same content or dwelling on trivial content when there are more important things to discuss.

This technique is an excellent way to prevent wasting time, but everyone in the group needs to agree ahead of time that nobody will be punished for showing the time out sign. The idea is to establish a group norm that allows the signal to be given by any individual with no negative repercussions.

It is then up to the leader of the group to acknowledge that at least one person has an issue. The first order of business is to thank the individual for expressing a concern, and then find out what the specific concern is.

It may be that the individual wants the group to take a break, or maybe the person feels the current content is not proper or redundant. Get an accurate description of why the person gave the time out signal. This is done by asking open-ended questions.

The leader would then check if others have the same feeling, and if so, make the change. If the person giving the hand signal is the only person interested in changing direction, then he or she needs to be treated with respect for the input but recognize there are other opinions among the group members.

The time out hand signal is a wonderful tool if used correctly, as described above. If used with a heavy hand or followed by ridicule then significant damage to trust is being done. It is up to leaders to set the tone for the correct usage so the method will be a way to enhance trust and transparency over time.

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