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Managing Employees The Strong, Silent Way – The Power of Nonverbal Communication

By Patti Wood MA, CSP

Does it seem that your employees just aren’t hearing you? Maybe your actions are drowning out your words. Your nonverbal communication sends messages about how confident you are, what you think about your own power, and how much you like others. Understanding what you’re conveying could mean the difference between being an effective manager – or not.

Consider your commentary on employee performance. As a manager, you might put a lot of time into carefully crafting what you’re going to say, but it may have a different impact than you intended if your voice and body language don’t match the words. You may say with your words, “You need to improve your time management skills.” But a lack of eye contact with your employee and a low speaking volume could indicate that your concern is not important. On the other hand, staring at the employee and saying the same thing with a loud accusatory voice could make him or her get defensive. Even where you give a message can send a nonverbal message. For example, catching that person in the hallway to tell them to do something may affect how they interpret your request. Some may think that a comment made in the hallway has no importance or urgency.

Every time you communicate with an employee, you need to consider your delivery. You may think you’ve been clear because your words were, "Stop doing this," or "Do it this way," but if the nonverbal message disagrees, that’s what the employee is going to “hear.”

Of course, you’re not the only one giving off signals. Effective managers look for cues from employees, too. How, where and when your employees communicate with you can tell you how they feel about you and their assignment. For example, do your workers ever come into your office to talk? A lot of managers think that if they don’t, that means their employees aren’t having problems, but it may be a danger signal. They may be uncomfortable with you, or they may not be following through with their work. If they’re comfortable in your space, you’re going to hear things, because they’ll feel safe with you. Don’t let the ease of e-mails keep you from face-to-face time with your employees. Research shows that face time increases the likelihood that employees will share important negative information such as problems with fellow employees, follow through on tasks or procedural issues. Obviously “see no evil” is not a good mantra for managers.

Visit their workspace. Take note of how employees respond when you step into their workspaces. Do they smile, make eye contact and turn toward you or keep their hands on the computer keyboard, without turning towards you? Busy body language is fine to get once in awhile from your employees, but if it is habitual, take note. You may need to spend more time with them. Typically, employees will get tense when they feel they can’t predict your behavior, or if you only visit them when you have to give more work or bad news. If you’re only face-to-face with your employees when you’re giving negative information or instruction, it might be time to try something concrete. Bring in bagels once a week, hang out in the conference room and talk about nothing in particular. Or, if you’re managing people in the field, make it a practice that on Monday mornings you do some small talk about what you did over the weekend. Small talk is a totally different speed of communication and creates different facial expressions and body movements, and that helps build relationships.

In addition, you’ll also strengthen those relationships if you work on keeping what you say and what you do consistent.

Convey Your Power

Do you have a problem with employees taking you seriously and following through on your requests? You may need to convey more confidence and conviction. Think about taking up more space. Start with a broader stance. For men that means standing with your feet up to 10 inches apart, for women, wearing pants that means you can increase the distance between your feet to 7 or 8 inches. Keep your arms further from your body. Keep your head up, and make significant, lingering eye contact without staring.

In addition, use a strong voice. Strong is not just about your volume level. Make sure the tone stays even, and sentences come down at the end rather than go up. When we want to appear “nice” we tend to bring a voice up high at the end of our sentences so it sounds as if there is a question mark at the end of declarative statements. If you say, “I need you to make these changes today.” Make sure your voice goes down and stays strong on the word “today.”

Gestures should be also be strong and decisive. As you sit in your chair right now, point your finger and sweep it across your body and say, “I want you to take this and move it over there.” Now repeat the same sentence with closed fingers and your palm down. Finally do it once more with closed fingers and your palm up. Research says that people think the person who gives the message while pointing is making a very serious demand and with the palm up they are asking a question, will you do it?

These may seem basic, but when we’re busy, or under fire in our day-to-day tasks, we may forget to do them.

Convey Your Empathy

Those wanting to portray empathy and softness rather than power should match and mirror what the other person is doing. If the other person’s head is tilted, tilt your own. If they’re breathing high in the chest, you breathe high in the chest. Maintain normal eye contact, then look away, then resume eye contact. Matching body language can be hard for men, who tend to pull back and want to be objective. But to show empathy, you have to be willing to shift and change your body language.

Granted, it is possible to completely ignore the nonverbal cues. Maybe you’ve been doing that all along. But consider this analogy, it’s as if all of us are speaking both English and French, with French being nonverbal communication. Some people understand French and use it; others don’t. Those who use it are getting so much more understanding and clarity, than those that say there is no such thing as a French language. They may think it doesn’t exist, but at the same time, they may be wondering why they’re having problems at work, problems in their relationships, and why people around them are unhappy. They don’t get it, because they think they’re being so clear just by using words.

So tomorrow go into work and speak a little “French.”

Visit her website for other articles about body language; www.pattiwood.net.