Body language at work: the neglected power

We all know how important our body language is – after all, about 80% of our communication is non-verbal. The crossed legs, our shoulders, the position of our chin – people need only 1/10th of a second to make a judgement, even before you open your mouth! And several studies have shown that we are very accurate in our judgements about other people – even if we have only facial expression and body language as our yard stick. But how much does body language account for who we actually are? And how does it influence our work life?

1. We can fake it!

When we meet poeple that communicate non-verbal power, we tend to rather make ourselves smaller than to mirror their dominant body language. This applies especially for women. But what if you’re just not the typical Alpha (fe)male? Can we fake dominance and power just through our gestures and posture? Amy Cuddy, a famous social psychologist, analyzed the effect our body language has on our awareness and confidence. She came to the following conclusion: Hormones play a major part! Two of them in particular- testosterone that is important for the feeling of confidence and cortisol that is in charge of our stress level. People with power have ideally both qualities: they are self-confident and stress resistent. Amy Cuddy instructed the study participants to take either a dominant pose or a low-power pose. Before and after the two minutes, she took saliva samples. It turned out that the participants who took the dominant pose had higher testosterone (more confident) and lower cortisol levels (less stressed) than before. So what can we take away from it?

Our body language is a two-way-street and by being aware of it, we are not only able to influence how we are perceived by others, but also to influence our own feeling.

Posture autopilot

We all know about the power that our body language has and how folded hands for example are perceived in a discussion. Despite our knowledge, we rarely use our body language consciously in the work environment and therefore neglect a powerful tool. Most of us have tailored certain postures for different situations – which we take almost automatically and unconsciously – because its convenient. When we see our colleagues holding a presentation with hanging shoulders, we instantly think: he or she doesn’t look very self-confident or convincing – the boss won’t buy her idea! However, recognizing our own body language blind spots is more challenging! How do I walk, how do I stand and sit vis-a-vis other people? It’s worth the time to think about those questions! After all, colleagues, clients and your boss are just as quick to spot your body language signals. Why it matters and how you can train your awareness:

2. Observe to understand group dynamics

Observing the body language of colleagues interacting with each other, helps you to understand group dynamics – especially if you’re new in a team. You start to see which colleagues are dominant, which are less confident, which colleagues really like or dislike their job etc. It also tells you about the “inofficial” hierarchies in a team. It doesn’t mean that you have to “use” this information, but it certainly helps you to train your awareness and don’t step on somebody’s feet unconsciously.

3. Observe to understand yourself better (and improve relationships)

Observing yourself in certain situations throughout the work day, helps you to recognize situations in which you adopted “unconscious” body language patterns. Some of these patterns may not fit the situation. This allows you to change your posture pattern and take control back over how other people perceive you. Maybe you never realized that you look very tense when you talk to one particular colleague, giving him the signal, that you don’t like/trust him (even if that’s not the case). In turn, this colleague is pretty closed up in your company, because he thinks you don’t like him. Ask yourself why you look so tense in his company – maybe it’s only because of the way he talks or the dialect, which makes it necessary for you to concentrate very intensely. Once you know the reason for your uninviting posture, you can decide to change it and probably remove obstacles.


4. Body language is sometimes more important than knowledge

Several studies have shown how accurate we can predict outcomes just by looking at people’s body language and facial expression. In a study conducted by Alex Todorov from Princeton University, people had to decide within a second whether the shown politician will be elected for the US Senate. 70% of the estimated outcomes were correct. What does this say about your organization? To what part does management account it’s position to body language? Or the other way around? A former colleague of mine was smart and easily as knowledgeable as his superiors. Nevertheless, he was always left out in the yearly promotions – partly because of his hanging shoulders, shy look and lack of assertiveness.

What can we take away from these learning? Body language is a tool for:

  • influencing your own emotional state (fake it till you make it)
  • influencing how you are perceived by others
  • Analyzing how others feel and how groups work


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