Many of our physical behaviors are unrehearsed and often go unnoticed. The slightest nuance, however, has the potential to change the entire tone of a conversation -- especially if you're in a leadership position.
"The default mechanism for the brain is negative, so if a gesture can be interpreted either positive or negative, we're almost always going to take the negative side," says Carol Goman, an executive coach. Because of this, it's important for leaders to recognize the power of a small gesture.
Goman, a senior advisor for The Dilenschneider Group, a New York-based communications consultant, has delivered keynote addresses at events hosted by The Conference Board and the International Association of Business Communicators. In her new book, The Silent Language of Leaders , she discusses what managers need to know about body language to lead effectively. The book is scheduled for publication in April by Jossey-Bass, an imprint of Wiley.
Here are a few lessons that Goman says are key takeaways for leaders looking to better manage their mannerisms.
Lesson One: If You're Not Looking, You're Not Listening.
You might think you can multi-task -- and perhaps you can -- but looking at your Blackberry or making a cup of coffee while an employee is sharing an idea with you signals disinterest almost instantaneously.
"If a manager wants to engender collaboration and wants to build a team, they need to give equal and strong eye contact to every person that works for them," says Goman. Being aware of this will encourage staff to share ideas as they have them, rather than have concern that your interest isn't piqued.
On the other hand, this awareness can be used to achieve a different end. "Sometimes, if you want to cut a person off, you can just sharply look away from them," suggests Goman. While it isn't foolproof, knowing the advantages of making -- or breaking -- eye contact can help you manage more effectively.
Lesson Two: Actions Speak Louder than Words.
Think of a few gestures you make on a daily basis. For example, you might cross your arms when you're cold, or give a thumbs-up to a team member to give them the go-ahead on an assignment. These simple, seemingly innocuous gestures, however, can take on an entirely different meaning than intended.
"You need to understand the power of a gesture," says Goman. Crossing your arms after saying you welcome any questions is contradictory -- by closing your body off in such a manner, you're suggesting that you don't actually have the time to hear any questions, but felt like you should ask for them anyway.
It's also a cultural matter. Certain gestures -- like a thumbs-up or the "okay" sign -- take on a completely different meaning outside of American borders. Make sure you're aware of any movements you're making to avoid any potentially offensive and awkward situations.
Lesson Three: Keep Your Distance.
If you've ever been in a crowded subway car in Manhattan, you probably know what it feels like to have your personal space invaded, trampled on, and essentially erased.
A good rule of thumb: You should never have that feeling in an office.
"The closer we are to someone, the closer we let them into our personal space," says Goman. So while your spouse, close friend, or child can be comfortably within a foot-and-a-half of you, it's probably not okay to be that close to a colleague.
For everyday workplace interactions, keeping four to 12 feet between you and a colleague is recognized as a comfortable distance -- more if you're presenting to a group, and less if you're giving them a pat on the back for a job well done.
Lesson Four: Keep a Smile on Your Face -- Most of the Time.
There are seven facial expressions, like those for happiness, grief, anger, or surprise, that are read universally across cultures. While this can be useful in conveying a thought intentionally, it also means that even the most fleeting glimpse of anger or disdain might be picked up on -- so carefully manage your initial reactions to what a colleague says when they're sharing their ideas.
Smiling, in particular, nearly always induces a positive reaction.
"When somebody smiles at us, the corners of our mouth turns up to mimic it which puts us in a better mood, it causes our brain chemistry to change," says Goman. To convey approval, excitement, encouragement, or general confidence in your team, just smile.
Women, however, tend to "oversmile," says Goman, so be careful not to overdo it. "Females who smile at the wrong time can weaken their authority when they do so," says Goman. Smiles tend to add levity or empathy to situations, so both men and women alike should trade a smile for a straight face when the occasion is more sincere.
Write to Kelly Eggers