The Silent Language of Leadership

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

By Carol Kinsey Goman

The chief executive officer of an oil company showed up at a refinery in a designer suit and tie to discuss the firm's affairs with rank-and-file operators, electricians, and members of the warehouse staff, who were dressed in their uniform of blue, fire-retardant overalls.

After being introduced and walking carefully to the front of the room, the CEO removed his wristwatch (let's call it a Rolex) and quite visibly placed it on the lectern. The unspoken message: "I'm a very important man, I don't like coming into dirty places like this, and I have exactly 20 minutes to spend with you."

That message was, you understand, quite different from the words he actually used to greet his audience: "I'm happy to be with you today."

Which do you think those refinery workers believed…the CEO's spoken words or what his body language said?

We continue to learn more and more about how body language affects the messages we try to send. Although we may not normally associate the fields of psychology, neurobiology, criminology, and sociology with advances in communication research, evidence from these areas of study has endowed the world of nonverbal communication with scientific credence. And one of the findings from evolutionary psychology is that our brains are "hard-wired" to respond to nonverbal signals—even though most of us aren't consciously aware of the process.

Here's what one researcher discovered: A classic study by Dr. Albert Mehrabian at UCLA found that the total impact of a message is based only 7% on the words used. Much more important are facial expressions (responsible for 55% of the total impact of the message), tone of voice (38%), and other forms of body language.

Obviously, you can't watch a person speaking in a foreign language and understand 93% of what is being communicated. Mehrabian was only studying the communication of feelings—particularly, the feelings of liking and disliking. Still, you can bet that when the verbal and nonverbal channels of communication are out of sync, most people (those refinery workers, for example) will tend to rely more on the nonverbal message than the verbal content.

All leaders express enthusiasm, warmth, and confidence—as well as arrogance, indifference, and displeasure--through their facial expressions, gestures, touch, and use of space. If an executive wants to be perceived as credible and forthright, he or she has got to think "outside the speech" and recognize the importance of nonverbal communication.

When a leader stands in front of a thousand employees and talks about how much he welcomes their input, the message gets derailed if that executive hides behind a lectern, leans back away from his audience, puts his hands behind his back or shoves them into his pockets, or folds his arms across his chest. All of those send closed nonverbal signals, when the intended message is really about openness.

It is especially crucial for leaders to communicate congruently—that is, to align the spoken word with body language that supports (instead of sabotages) an intended message. When nonverbal messages conflict with verbal messages, the audience becomes confused. Mixed signals have a negative effect on performance and make it almost impossible to build relationships of trust.

Then there is the matter of timing. If a leader's gestures are produced before or as the words come out, she appears open and candid. However, if she speaks first and then gestures (as I have seen many executives do) it's perceived as a contrived movement. And at that point, the validity of whatever is said comes under suspicion.

Nonverbal communication also plays a critical role in making sure the workforce truly receives and understands key messages. If a leader wants to talk about new initiatives, major change, strategic opportunities, or if he or she has to deliver bad news, my advice is to do so in person. Every research report on employee communications presents one consistent conclusion: Face-to-face communications is the employee's medium of choice. This is because in face-to-face encounters, our brains process a continual cascade of nonverbal cues that we use as the basis for building trust and professional intimacy, both of which are critical to high-level collaboration, persuasion, and communication.

If a face-to-face meeting isn’t possible, employees will accept the next best thing. I know of one Fortune 25 company that regularly used teleconferences to provide an ongoing opportunity for small groups of employees to get up close and personal with the CEO. Time after time, employees would ask about policies or pending organizational changes that had already been communicated in various company publications and through dozens of e-mail announcements.

After the meetings, the beleaguered CEO would ask his communication manager, "How many times have we told them about that? Why don't they know that?"

"Oh, they know it," the communications manager would reply. "They just want to hear it from you. More importantly, they want to be able to look at you when you say it."

There is no doubt that you can gain a professional advantage by learning how to use nonverbal communication more effectively. Here are a few simple tips:

  • Get out from behind the lectern so the audience can see your entire body
  • Fully face the audience, standing tall
  • Make eye contact with your audience
  • Keep your movements relaxed and natural
  • Use open arm gestures, showing the palms of your hands (silent signals of credibility and candor)

A good coach can help you determine which gestures and facial expressions are most congruent with the messages you want to convey. But remember that body language is more than a set of techniques. It is also a reflection of a person's internal state. In fact, the more someone tries to control their emotions, the more likely those emotions will leak out nonverbally.

Here's a recent example: The corporate communicator who brought me into her company to coach an executive warned me that he was a "pretty crummy speaker." And, after watching him at a leadership conference, I had to agree. It wasn't his word—they were carefully chosen and well rehearsed. But through his mechanical gestures, this man's body was screaming: "I'm uncomfortable and unconvinced about everything I'm saying!"

The question: Could I help?

The answer: Not much.

Oh sure, I could find ways to make his movements less wooden and his timing more fluid. But if a person doesn't care about (or believe in) what he is saying, his gestures will automatically become lethargic and restricted. What the executive needed most was genuine enthusiasm and passion about the company's new strategic direction. Sadly, what employee audiences saw when this business leader spoke was exactly how he really felt!

Of course, learning to align body language with verbal messages is only one side of the coin. The other side—and here is where leaders can really set themselves apart—is the ability to accurately read the nonverbal signals that employees and team members display.

Peter Drucker, the renowned author, professor, and management consultant, understood this clearly. "The most important thing in communication," he once said, "is hearing what isn't said."

About the Author(s)

Carol Kinsey Goman coaches executives, helps teams develop strategies, and delivers keynote speeches and seminars to business audiences around the world. She is the author of nine books, including her latest, The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. For more information: telephone: 510-526-1727, e-mail: [email protected], or  the Web: