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Mind the Gap

Actions shout louder than words

Posted by Victoria Buckenham

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘actions speak louder than words’, but as a senior leader the spotlight is always on – so your actions may not only be speaking but shouting too. So how can you ensure your body language matches what you’re saying or thinking? Read on to find out more.

Self-awareness is key
When delivering a message or presentation have you ever had the feeling that your message hasn’t landed as you expected? Or have you ever worried that you’re not seen as warm by others? This could be down to your body language not matching the situation in hand.

We all have different faces and expressions, many of which are hard to manage whilst concentrating for long periods. We all have preferred ways to sit, stand or even just ‘be’. Consequently, your resting expression or stance may not actually convey what you’re thinking or feeling about a situation.

Being self-aware and conscious of how you might be perceived is the first and often most crucial phase. So, once you’re self-aware (i.e. even thinking about this!), how can you take positive action?

Ask for feedback
You can find out a lot about how people perceive you by asking simple questions. A safe place to start may be asking close friends and family for their feedback on your body language. Use probing questions to find out how it makes them feel like ‘when you saw me doing that, what did you think?’ or ‘what could I have done differently?’. It’s likely your colleagues are thinking the same!

If you feel comfortable, seek feedback within your own team during 121’s. You could even turn this into a team activity at an away day to help everyone work more seamlessly by understanding each other’s non-verbal cues.

It’s not only important to find out how you’re perceived by your team; you need feedback from your peers and Manager too. Take the time within either a formal 121 conversation or even a ‘water cooler chat’ to find out a bit more about what people see when you’re in action day-to-day. It may also be helpful for them to differentiate between a regular interaction and when they see you under pressure too. Just be sure to ask them what they think you could do differently, so you can start to take action immediately.

Be an open leader
If you’re aware that your body language can sometimes be confusing, talk to your team about it. For example, you may have an old back injury which means you often sit with crossed arms for comfort. Research shows that this can come across as confrontational, so by making your team aware, they won’t waste time subconsciously trying to process what they see in front of them.

Being a vulnerable leader can often change the whole dynamic of a team, so if you give individuals permission to ask ‘what are you thinking?’ or even ‘are you okay?’, you’re very likely to find people are more open in general in return, and productivity may even increase because they’re not wasting time wondering what you’re thinking.

A simple leadership tip is to smile! You will notice that people not only smile back at you, but they will also approach you more often which will enhance collaboration and often the pace of projects.

The magnifying glass effect
It’s really important to understand the potential knock-on effect of your body language as a senior leader. For example, a simple yawn in a meeting could be magnified if those around you see it. You may, in fact, be yawning because your child was awake all night, but that yawn may be misconstrued as your disengagement and non-endorsement of the topic in hand. Always be aware of how the magnifying glass effect could be viewed by those around you – after all, individuals will be taking cues from you on how they should be thinking and acting too.

A quick hint if you are feeling particularly jaded before a meeting is to let others know why. That way you are excusing any body language like yawning before it even starts!

Start with being self-aware! Speak to those around you to find out what they think about your body language, both on a normal day and also under pressure. Find out what you can to do help the situation – do you physically need to do something different, or can you talk to people so they understand you better? Also be aware that as you’re a senior leader, people will look to you as a role model for behaviour and thoughts. Make sure you give the impression you want them to have.