Project a More Powerful Image at Work

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD

There are two sets of body language cues that people look for in leaders: Warmth (empathy, likeability, caring) and authority (power, credibility, status). Although I know several leaders of both sexes who do not fit the stereotypes, I’ve noticed that women excel in the warmth and empathy characteristics but lose out when it comes to the power and authority cues.
If a woman wants to be perceived as credible, confident, and powerful she has to be aware of the nonverbal signals she’s sending. Too often, women on all levels of the corporate ladder unknowingly exhibit behaviors that reduce their authority.

If you want tobe taken seriouslyby your superiors and coworkers, avoid the following 10 common women’s body language mistakes:

  1. Using too many head tilts.Head tilting is a signal that someone is listening and involved—and a particularly feminine gesture. Head tilts can be very positive cues, but people also subconsciously process them as signals of submission. Anyone who wants to project power and authority should keep their heads straight up in a more neutral position.
  2. Condensing your space.One way that status is nonverbally demonstrated in a business meeting is by physically taking up room. Lower-status, less-confident people tend to pull in their bodies and minimize their size, while high status employees expand and take up space. Projecting a more powerful image is as easy as unfolding your arms. So at your next meeting, spread out your belongings and claim your turf!
  3. Appearing nervous under pressure. Everyone uses pacifying gestures when dealing with stress: They rub their hands together, grab their upper arms, and touch their necks.  Too many of these gestures, such as nail-biting, hair touching or pen clicking can make you appear less powerful and more skittish when dealing with high pressure scenarios.
  4. Smiling excessively.While smiling can be a powerful and positive nonverbal cue— especially for signaling likeability and friendliness—you should be aware that excessive or inappropriate smiling can be confusing and can lower your credibility. This is especially true if you smile while discussing a serious subject, expressing anger, or giving negative feedback.
  5. Nodding too much.When a man nods, it generally means he agrees. When a woman nods, it can mean she agrees—or is listening to, empathizing with, or encouraging the speaker to continue. This excessive head nodding can make you look like a bobble-head doll. Constant head nodding can express encouragement and engagement, but is less likely to convey authority and power.
  6. Speaking “up.”If your voice often rises at the ends of sentences, it appears as if you're asking a question or asking for approval. When stating your opinion, be sure to use the authoritative arc, in which your voice starts on one note, rises in pitch through the sentence and drops back down at the end.
  7. Waiting your turn.In negotiations, men generally talk more than women and interrupt more frequently. One perspective on the value of speaking up comes from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who, when asked what advice she had for up-and-coming professional women, replied, “Learn to interrupt.”
  8. Being overly expressive.While a certain amount of movement and animation adds passion and meaning to a message, those who express the entire spectrum of emotions often overwhelm their audience. So in situations where you want to maximize your authority, minimize youWomen's Leadership Workshopr movements. When you appear calm and contained, you look more powerful.
  9. Shaking hands too feebly.People who have a weak handshake are judged to be passive and less confident. So take the time to cultivate your “professional shake.” Keep your body squared off to the other person, facing him or her fully. Make sure you have palm-to-palm contact and that the web of your hand (the skin between your thumb and first finger) touches the web of the other person's; and, most of all, remember to shake hands firmly.
  10. Flirting. Women gain likeability but lose their competitive advantage when they flirt. In a UC Berkeley study, female actors played the roles of sellers of a biotech business. Half were told to project a no-nonsense, business approach. Half were instructed to flirt (using the nonverbal behaviors of smiling, leaning forward suggestively, tossing their hair, etc.) —but to do so subtly. The outcome was that the “buyers” offered the flirts (dubbed “likeable losers”) 20% less, on average, than what they offered the more straitlaced sellers.

Women are increasingly ascending the corporate ladder and becoming powerful executives. Women's Leadership Workshop offers tips that help women lead their businesses and rise through the ranks to the top.

About the Author(s)

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD is an executive coach, leadership consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is the author of The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt How You Lead, and most recently, The Truth About Lies in the Workplace: How to Spot Liars and What to Do About Them. For more information, contact [email protected] or visit: