Why body language matters in leadership – and how you can improve yours

This week, Elizabeth Jett from The Management Training Institute is our guest blogger on something that we’re often unaware of, but which packs a big punch – body language.

I’ll never forget a colleague gently ribbing me for the fact that when I was in front of clients and I was concentrating hard, I’d close my eyes for the loooongest time. He and my clients used to wonder if I was doing a mini meditation, mid pitch! And the funny thing was, I was totally unaware I was doing it. Disconcerting for all of us, to say the least.

Take a look at what Elizabeth has to say on why body language is important and how you can ensure you’re not having a Suzi ‘meditation’ moment.

One of the most important elements in building a successful business is your relationships with employees, partners, and customers. A factor that underpins all of these relationships is communication. The way we communicate influences our leadership, marketing, brand perception, and even how much our employees feel motivated.

In communication, there’s what we convey – and what the other person receives. Both of these determine how others judge our thinking, confidence, and trustworthiness. And while the content that we’re communicating is a significant piece of the puzzle, how we say it matters too. Yet, so often we forget just how important body language is.

So what is body language?

Body language is made up of all those non-verbal cues we give that pass information along – think things like:

  • Facial expressions, which can often act independently and opposite to what you’re saying. They are so powerful that you may shift expression without even noticing;
  • The physical space between people talking, which is also important but not often considered. Invading someone’s personal space may make them uncomfortable or can make you seem intimidating.
  • Eye contact, which can show you’re invested in the conversation and helps you acknowledge what someone is saying;
  • Hand movement and placement, another non-verbal communication cue that we often lack conscious awareness of. Folding your hands can seem defensive or imposing, while pocketing can make you seem relaxed or passive; and
  • Appearance, touch, and our voice’s tone, which also act as non-verbal communication cues.

We’re often unaware of our non-verbal communication cues, but that doesn’t make them less critical. Body language is a big part of how the person we’re communicating with perceives the information we’re sharing for instance, avoiding eye contact and slouching may happen unknowingly, but can make an employee feel their manager is less invested in what they have to say.

And while they can be small, non-verbal cues have the biggest impact during communication. With our minds designed to take in negative associations first, body language can easily pass on inaccurate information.

Body language in the workplace

Communication impacts every aspect of our work. We use body language when talking with our workmates, presenting to clients or in a meeting, and networking with industry partners, and it helps indicate our level of interest, engagement, and focus.      

As a leader, body language in the workplace will also impact how your employees feel coming to work, influencing their productivity and work relationships. If you’re shaking your head or looking elsewhere while a team member shares their ideas with you, you risk putting them off from opening up entirely, or losing their valuable inputs.      

To empower and support your employees completely, you need to understand how your body language and behavior (even subconsciously) impacts your employees’ feelings at work. Putting non-verbal communication cues into context can improve how we (and they) interpret information.

How to improve your body language

Increasing our awareness of how we use body language to communicate will improve our relationships – not just professionally, but personally. Below are some tips to improve your body language:

  • Work on your posture, as it’s the key to showing your interest and confidence.    
  • Always maintain eye contact – but don’t overdo it and stare or glare as you may make the recipient or speaker uncomfortable.     
  • Smile. It seems simple, but it conveys warmth.    
  • Be more empathetic and emotionally aware of who you’re communicating with. Being sensitive to the other person’s emotions by watching their tone or facial expressions will help you navigate tricky situations.   
  • Personalise your interaction with individual team members to ensure you pass on information to everyone in a way they can understand and that feels right to them. This might be different from how YOU like to be communicated with. Cultural differences should also be taken into consideration here.       

The Management Training Institute is a learning organisation dedicated to energising managers and facilitating transformative experiences. Find out more about their body language and workplace communication training here.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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