Biggest Body Language Mistake You’re Making at Work—and What to Do Instead
Published: Sep 17, 2020
Carol Kinsey Goman is a leadership and body language expert whose clients include AT&T, Amazon, Bank of America, FedEx, General Electric, Google, Goldman Sachs, and LinkedIn. She’s the creator of Body Language for Leaders, LinkedIn Learning's best-selling video course, which has more than two million views. She’s also a contributor to Forbes and the author of 13 business books, including Stand Out: How to Build Your Leadership Presence, which will be published later this month.
Before the pandemic, Goman traveled the world, giving hundreds of keynote speeches for corporations, conferences, universities, and government agencies. Now she travels virtually, without leaving her home office, giving presentations in Pakistan, Turkey, Russia, France, Canada, and throughout the U.S. Recently, we spoke with Goman via email about her new book, the biggest body language mistakes people make at work, and best body language practices for virtual meetings and interviews. Below is an excerpt of that conversation.
Vault: Can you talk about how you became interested in body language and presence in the workplace?
Goman: I first learned about body language when I took acting classes as a teenager. When we put on a play, I also saw how the nonverbal aspect of “dressing the part” greatly influenced both the audience and actor. But it wasn’t until I started working with businesspeople—first as a therapist in private practice and later as a coach for executives, managers, and entrepreneurs—that I understood the full impact of body language and presence on leadership effectiveness.
Could you talk about why you wrote Stand Out and what you hope readers take away from it?
I’m most often asked to coach candidates for senior-level leadership positions, so my clients are smart, skilled, and loaded with leadership ability. But when I ask why these talented people need coaching, I’m told that they don’t have the leadership presence needed to advance higher in the organization.
That’s how I learned early on that leadership presence isn’t automatically assigned to you because of your title, intelligence, or leadership skill—and it’s not necessarily reflective of your true qualities and potential. Instead, leadership presence depends entirely on how other people evaluate you. Since it’s totally dependent on the impression you make, enhancing your presence requires a deep understanding of the impact of your appearance, your body language, your emotional state, and how well you communicate key messages.
The goal of leadership presence is to align other people’s impression of you with your best authentic self. I wrote this book as a skill-building guide for all the wonderful people I haven’t (yet) met, to help them stand out as the talented leaders they already are. Stand Out is filled with strategies for displaying credibility, confidence, composure, connection, and charisma. It offers tips for personal branding and enhancing your body language skills. It looks at how leadership presence is different for women and why your style of leadership may not be shared by all members of your global team.
What are some of the biggest body language mistakes employees make in the workplace?
With nonverbal communication, it’s not how the sender feels that matters most; it’s how the observer perceives how the sender feels. And those interpretations are often made deep in the subconscious mind, based on a primitive emotional reaction that hasn’t changed much since humans began interacting with one another.
One of the biggest mistakes is overlooking the fact that your nonverbal signals don’t always convey what you intended them to. You may be slouching because you’re tired, but people read it as a sign of disinterest. You may be more comfortable with your arms folded across your chest (or you may be cold), but others see you as resistant and unapproachable. And keeping your hands stiffly by your side or stuffed in your pockets can give the impression that you’re insecure—whether you are or not.
Also remember that your leadership presence is diminished whenever you assume a submissive posture in which your shoulders are rounded, your chest is concave, and your head is tilted down. Holding your body in a condensed position not only makes you look vulnerable, listless, and powerless, it makes you feel that way too.
What are some of the best things, from a body language perspective, people can do in meetings and interviews to make strong first impressions?
With in-person encounters, you have seven seconds to make a first impression. While you can't stop people from making snap decisions—the human brain is hardwired in this way as a prehistoric survival mechanism—you can understand how to make those decisions work in your favor. Here are seven things you can do:
1. Adjust your attitude. People pick up your attitude instantly. Before you enter an office for a sales call or a job interview, or step on-stage to make a presentation, think about the situation and make a conscious choice about the attitude you want to embody.
2. Stand tall. Pull your shoulders back and hold your head high. This is a posture of confidence and self-esteem.
3. Smile. A smile is an invitation, a sign of welcome. It says, “I'm friendly and approachable.”
4. Make eye contact. Looking at someone's eyes transmits energy and indicates interest and connection. (To improve your eye contact, make a practice of noticing the eye color of everyone you meet.)
5. Raise your eyebrows. Open your eyes slightly more than normal to simulate the “eyebrow flash” that’s the universal signal of recognition and acknowledgement.
6. Lean in slightly. Leaning forward shows you're engaged and interested. But be respectful of the other person's space—don’t get too close.
7. Show your palms. Open palm gestures are a universal sign of openness and trust.
By the way, although hand shaking has been one of Covid’s victims, I hope this ban is only temporary, because shaking hands is the quickest and most effective way to establish rapport. Touch is our most primitive and powerful nonverbal cue. Research shows it takes an average of three hours of continuous interaction to develop the same level of rapport that you can get with a single handshake.
Do you have any virtual body language tips for people who are now mostly meeting and interviewing virtually (via Zoom, Skype, etc.)?
Be seen. When participating in a virtual meeting, you need to be on camera. Don’t hide off-screen behind a name plate or still photo. You can’t display presence if you’re not present.
Get framed. Pull back slightly so you aren’t just a talking head. The more of your body we can see, the more trustworthy you look.
Dress for virtual success. Working from home, it’s easy to slide from business casual to way-too-sloppy. Your outfit can be very casual, as long as your grooming and wardrobe reinforce your professional image.
Breathe. Right before the meeting or interview begins, take five deep breaths. This silent breathing technique is a secret weapon of all on-camera presenters to help them get centered and focused.
Start with a smile. Some nonverbal behaviors can bring out the best in us. Smiling is one of them, as it directly influences how other people respond. When you smile at us, in person or virtually, we almost always smile in return. Because facial expressions trigger corresponding feelings (called “facial feedback”), your smile makes both you and your audience feel more upbeat and positive.
Watch your posture. The best tip for looking confident in a virtual meeting is to sit with good posture—facing the screen with shoulders squared, head straight, and feet flat on the ground. In fact, someone viewing you for the first time will make judgments about your leadership presence based more on your posture than on your actual role or title. A side benefit is that good posture not only looks more confident, it also makes you feel more self-assured.
Make eye contact. Especially in times of uncertainty, people are watching to see if you show genuine interest by giving them your full attention. When we're face-to-face, eye contact makes that connection; to make virtual eye contact, remember to look at the camera as much as possible. (Tip: Put a Post-it note with a smiley face next to the camera on your computer.)
Are there any exercises employees can do to improve their body language and presence in the workplace?
The next time you’re preparing for a job interview or an important meeting or presentation, rehearse in front of a video camera. Then, view the video, staying as objective as possible. Just be kind to yourself. My clients are often stunned by their body language when they see themselves on video for the first time. After viewing his recording of a mock job interview, one incredulous client exclaimed, “Hell, I wouldn't hire me!”
Rather than listening to that inner critic, I’d advise you to become a compassionate self-coach. Remember, like all of us, you’re a work in progress.