How your staff can tell how you really feel

Do you know that your team is constantly evaluating your emotions through cues in your body language – and that they can do so in a fraction of a second?

At the Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging at the University of Glasgow, researchers found that it takes only 200 milliseconds to read someone’s emotional state from his or her facial expression. So “putting on a happy face” isn’t only a pleasant thing to do; it sends a powerful signal to those who work with you.

During a major change, for example, your staff will be on high alert – constantly looking to you for clues on how to react. If you look upset or angry, that negativity can spread like a virus throughout the team, affecting attitudes and lowering energy. Conversely, if you come across as energized and positive, you’re likely to make your entire team feel upbeat and optimistic.

Of course, it’s not only facial expressions that send a message. Emotional signals come from other parts of your body – including your feet.

I was at a conference, in the audience, when the chief executive officer of a financial institute was being interviewed, seated at the front of the stage, facing us. One of his staff sat across from him, reading a list of questions that had been submitted by attendees.

As the CEO responded to the first inquiries, he shared his philosophy of “relationship banking” and the importance of employees to the company’s brand. While doing so, his body language was open and relaxed. His posture, facial expressions and hand gestures signalled comfort and confidence.

Then came a series of questions about executive compensation. As the CEO answered these, his body language stayed constant – except for his feet. From a comfortable, loose leg cross, the executive suddenly locked his ankles tightly together, pulled them back under the chair and began to make tiny kicks with both feet. He then recrossed his ankles and kicked his feet again. And this behaviour continued throughout the entire set of compensation questions.

If all the audience could have seen was the upper half of the executive’s body, we might have been convinced that he was still at ease, but his feet told a different story – one of anxiety and stress.

Another way that leaders show emotion is through their posture. Because the heart, brain and nervous system are so closely interlocked, your staff can often tell if you are happy or depressed simply by observing how you hold your body. If you are in a great mood, you are most likely walking around with your shoulders back and your head held high, but if you are disappointed or depressed, your shoulders will begin to round forward and you’ll cave in slightly at the chest.

How you breathe is also telling. Holding our breath is a primitive instinct – a hard-wired reaction (the “freeze” portion of the “flight, fight or freeze” response) when facing a threat. Today, even though threats are more likely to be psychological than physical, any anxiety can cause you to hold your breath or to breathe high in your chest in small, shallow breaths.

Leaning is an unconscious way your body indicates emotion – especially your feelings about various people on the team. Positive attitudes toward those you like, whose opinion you respect, tend to be accompanied by leaning forward – especially when sitting down. Leaning backward usually signals feelings of dislike, dismissal or negativity. It’s another hard-wired response from the limbic brain; we subconsciously try to distance ourselves from anything unpleasant or dangerous.

People will also judge the closeness of your relationships by the amount of eye contact you display: the greater the eye contact, the closer the relationship. They’ll notice, too, when you begin to mirror someone’s gestures and facial expressions, because by doing so you send strong signals of liking or admiring that person.

When members of your staff are evaluating whether this is a good time to approach you, they will check to see if you look “open” or “closed.” In the ultimate closed body posture, arms are folded, legs are crossed and the torso or legs are turned away. In open and receptive body postures, legs are uncrossed and arms are open with palms exposed or resting comfortably on the desk or conference table. If your arms are relaxed at the sides of your body while standing, this is also generally a sign of openness, accessibility and an overall willingness to interact.

Your voice also conveys subtle but powerful clues into feelings and meanings. Think, for example, how tone of voice can indicate sarcasm, concern or confidence. Or how an increase in volume and intensity grabs attention because of the heightened emotion it signals.

As a leader, you convey emotions to your team through the content of your messages and your non-verbal communication – but you may be surprised to learn that the latter is more powerful than the former. The Human Dynamics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Tech Media Lab and the research centres at Xerox found that people are more likely to be influenced not by the spoken word, but by the kinds of signals that you (like most leaders) may overlook – your vocal nuances and your body language. 

Troy Media columnist Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant and international keynote speaker at corporate, government and association events. She is also the author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead.

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