6 Body Language Tips for Inclusion
By Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.
It’s pretty much what you’d expect—the body language of inclusion includes eye contact, smiling, head nods, and body orientation. But don’t get fooled. These seemingly inconsequential behaviors are so powerful that they may dictate your success or failure as a collaborative leader. Here are six ways to use body language to enhance collaboration.
Tip 1: Check Your Expectations
“Pygmalion in the Classroom,” one of the most controversial publications in the history of educational research, shows how a teacher’s expectations can motivate student achievement (Rhem, J., 1999, “Pygmalion in the Classroom,” The National Teaching and Learning Forum). This classic study gave prospective teachers a list of students who had been identified as “high achievers.” The teachers were told to expect remarkable results from these students, and at the end of the year, the students did, indeed, make sharp increases on their IQ test scores.
In reality, these children had been chosen at random, not as a result of any testing. It was the teachers’ belief in their potential that was responsible for the extraordinary results. The children were never told they were high achievers, but this message was delivered subtly and non-verbally through expectancy behaviors such as facial expressions, gestures, touch, and spatial relationships (the distance between teacher and student).
This self-fulfilling prophecy isn’t only operational in the classroom. Tel Aviv University professor Dov Eden has demonstrated the power of the Pygmalion effect in all sorts of work groups, across all sectors and industries. It almost sounds too simple to be true, but Eden found that if supervisors or managers hold positive expectations about the performance of the people they lead that performance will improve (Riggio, R., April 2009, “Pygmalion Leadership: The Power of Positive Expectations,” Psychology Today, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/200904/pygmalion-leadership-the-power-positive-expectations).
Collaboration is based on trust and empowerment, and your willingness to trust and empower team members depends on whether you believe they will be able to take on that responsibility and succeed. As a leader, your expectations (and the way those expectations are broadcast through your body language) are a key factor in how well people perform on your team.
Tip 2: Activate Your Smile Power
A genuine smile not only stimulates your own sense of well-being, it also tells those around you that you are approachable, cooperative, and trustworthy. A genuine smile comes on slowly, crinkles the eyes, lights up the face, and fades away slowly. (By way of contrast, a counterfeit or “polite” smile comes on quickly and never reaches the eyes.)
Some nonverbal behaviors can bring out the best in people. Smiling is one of them. It makes you feel good and produces positive physiological changes in your body temperature and heart rate. But, most importantly for a collaborative leader, smiling directly influences how other people respond to you. When you smile at someone, they almost always smile in return. And, because facial expressions trigger corresponding feelings, the smile you get back actually changes that person’s emotional state in a positive way.
Tip 3: Use Your Head
Collaboration depends on participants’ willingness to speak up and share their ideas and insights. Your nonverbal signals can either increase participation or shut it off.
The next time you are in a meeting where you’re trying to encourage a team member to continue speaking, nod your head using clusters of three nods at regular intervals. I’ve found that people will talk much more than usual when the listener nods in this manner.
Head tilting is another signal that you are interested, curious, and involved. The head tilt is a universal gesture of giving the other person an ear. As such, head tilts can be very positive cues when you want to encourage people to expand on their comments.
Tip 4: Look at People When They Speak
Eye contact is a powerful motivator to encourage speaking because people feel they have your attention and interest as long as you are looking at them. The power of eye contact to direct a conversation is evident even when the “listener” is a robot.
Scientists from Carnegie Mellon University in collaboration with researchers from Japan’s Osaka University and from ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratory found that a robot’s eye movement is key to guiding the flow of a conversation with more than one person. The robot (called Robovie) used for the experiments was given the ability to combine gaze with speech.
Having been programmed to play the part of a travel agent, Robovie was able to control the flow of a booking negotiation quite effectively with strategic eye contact: When it looked equally at two people, they took turns speaking. Those at whom Robovie only glanced spoke less, and those who were ignored completely spoke the least. This pattern was consistent about 97 percent of the time (Grifantini, K., March 11, 2009, “Making Robots Give the Right Glances, Technology Review,
As a leader, you set the tone for the meeting. Body language that signals boredom or disinterest will ensure that team members are disinclined to share their knowledge and viewpoints. If you want someone to speak up, avoid the temptation to check your text messages, check your watch, or check out how the other participants are reacting. Instead, focus on whoever is speaking to make sure that he or she feels you are listening.
Tip 5: Use the “Ultimate Connective Gesture”
When you make an uplifting statement (for example, “This is a wonderful opportunity”), gesture toward the listener with an upward open palm and then casually pull your hand back toward your body. In the example, you would start your gesture toward the other person as you said the word “wonderful” and bring the gesture toward you as you say the word “opportunity.” When you do this, you are nonverbally connecting the two of you in the most positive and inclusive way.
Tip 6: Remove Barriers
Face people directly. Even a quarter turn away creates a barrier (the “cold shoulder”), signaling a lack of interest and causing the speaker to shut down. Physical obstructions are especially detrimental to the effective exchange of ideas. Take away anything that blocks your view or forms a barrier between you and the rest of the team. Close your laptop, turn off your cell phone, put your purse or briefcase to the side.
And if you think it makes you look more efficient (or important) to be continually checking your laptop or cell phone for messages, think again. As one member of a management team recently told me, “There’s this senior exec in our department who has a reputation of being totally addicted to his Blackberry. He is constantly on the machine during internal meetings. When he finally focuses on others, peers make jokes about his ‘coming back to Earth.’ We know he’s not tracking the conversation because he keeps asking questions that already have been responded to. The result is that when he does contribute, he has no credibility.”
Even at a coffee break, be aware that you may create a barrier by holding your cup and saucer in a way that seems deliberately to block your body or distance you from others. A very successful senior executive (who happened to be a body language aficionado) once told me he could evaluate his team’s comfort by how high they held their coffee cups. It was his observation that the more insecure an individual felt, the higher they held their coffee. People with their hands held at waist level were more comfortable than those with hands chest high.
Most of all, remember that team members will be watching all the time, and they will be waiting to see if your behavior is congruent in both formal and informal settings. When one CEO hosted a corporate function designed to gather ideas from participants, he listened attentively during the presentations but spent the breaks sitting far away from the group, reading a newspaper. It was only natural shyness that caused him to withdraw, but by now I’m sure you can accurately guess how the other people in the group evaluated his behavior.
Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is the author of “The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead,” published by Jossey-Bass. She’s an executive coach, international keynote speaker, and trainer for corporations, associations, and government agencies. Kinsey Goman has served as adjunct faculty at John F. Kennedy University in the International MBA program, at U.C. Berkeley in the Executive Education Department, and for the Chamber of Commerce of the United States at their Institutes for Organization Management. She is a current faculty member with the Institute for Management Studies.