Sending signals: The power of body language

As a manager, do you command respect, or expect to command? Success in management is about positive leadership; without it you have little more than the exercise of power.

People get where they are by adopting different strategies for increasing their authority over others. Some are coercive and aggressive, getting their own way through sheer force of will or intimidation; some manipulate, relying on their ability to take advantage of situations to get what they want, while others are too submissive and find themselves losing out in the promotion stakes. Those who maintain the right balance between assertiveness and self-assurance command respect and climb the ladder.

Success in management has as much to do with being seen to do your job well as actually doing it well. Conveying the right impression can often make up for deficiencies in knowledge and skills. Equally, being aware of how people operate isn’t the same as demonstrating your willingness to listen to them. In other words, it’s all about communication.

You may be surprised to learn that 90 per cent of what we mean when we communicate with each other is unspoken. Actions speak louder than words – a thoughtful nod, a telling sigh, a studied gaze, crossed arms, the way you touch your nose – these are just a few of the hundreds of clues your body language gives away all of the time without you knowing it. But, unlike Dr Cal Lightman, the psychologist in the US TV drama series Lie to me, whose lightning ability to read facial micro-expressions uncovers deception in a blink of the eye, you may find that interpreting hidden meaning isn’t always that simple.

We use body language to convey all kinds of messages and meanings. Some of us are better at ‘reading’ it than others. That’s because the more aware you are of how the body ‘talks’, the less you need to say and the quicker you identify people’s intentions and motives. We call this active listening. It enables you to look beyond what people say to what they really mean. Rather like adjusting the focus on a telescope, things are revealed that we miss with the naked eye, adding definition to what we previously took for granted.

Imagine communication without body language. When we write, we use commas, full stops, exclamation marks and question marks to show where pauses in speech occur and to indicate tone of voice. If we write with no punctuation it is the same as talking without body language; the meaning and emphasis is lost.

Body talk

Think how your colleagues behave towards others at work, then think of the words you might use to describe their body language. For example, aggressive people are confrontational, critical and sarcastic, and their body language tense, dominating and intimidating. Manipulators tend to get their own way because they come across as laid-back, yet somehow appear ‘two-faced.’ Their exaggerated gestures and prolonged eye contact, ‘sweet talk’ and habit of touching or patting, feel patronising and insincere. Submissive people are often quiet, defensive, self-conscious, apologetic, self-deprecating and resentful of others’ success. By appearing hesitant, looking puzzled and failing to make adequate eye contact, they come across as lacking in ability, as a result of which questions get asked about their competence.

On the other hand, managers who are comfortable about being assertive and who display their expertise and leadership qualities through self-assured, confident behaviour usually gain the respect and trust of their colleagues. The trouble is, for every good manager there is another whose style of operating has the opposite effect.

Power brokers

There are five kinds of power brokers: those who rely on who they are (position) or how tough they are (coercion), to command respect. There are those who gain it due to ability (expertise) or by empowering others (reward), and those whose sheer presence (charisma) does it for them. In each case their body language signatures are revealing.

  • Position

People still tend to obey managers out of respect for the title even if that individual fails in all other aspects of the job. Power brokers who rely upon who they are in the organisation are not difficult to spot. They adopt the postures, gestures and unspoken mannerisms associated with their position in the organisation. Even the most casual observer can pick out the ‘boss’ in such a group.

Typically he or she will adopt a ‘posture of superiority’ – sitting back, hands behind head, elbows out with one leg crossed over the other, to which subordinates defer. They keep their distance preferring not to ‘lower themselves’ and use status symbols (bigger office, company car, designated place at meetings) as a means of underlining their authority.  

How many times have you heard people say ‘I wouldn’t get on the wrong side of
him if I were you’?

The body language of coercion is not difficult to recognise, its most common expression being aggression, which is characterised by dominating behaviour designed to threaten or intimidate. The tell-tale body language signatures of aggression include tense body posture, clenched fists, hands on hips, finger pointing, strutting, eye-narrowing, staring, and invading personal space by standing too close. Coercive power can be self-defeating however. Threats (negative appraisal, demotion) and non-verbal intimidation often result in high staff turnover and a demotivated workforce.

  • Expertise

Authority based on respect for one’s expertise tends to be conveyed through self-confidence and assertiveness. Confident people have no need to dominate or manipulate because they know that such uses of power erode motivation and loyalty. Being ‘firm but fair,’ open, sincere and prepared to offer constructive criticism and give praise where it’s due generally gets the best out of people.

Confident body language suggests openness, as in face-to-face eye contact, open gestures and hand signals, resonant speech and an upright, relaxed posture. Simple things like paying attention to the other person and ‘steepling’ – where the finger tips are touching but the palms are apart – indicates confidence in what is being said. Hands turned palms-down indicates certainty. Less confident people tend to talk with palms facing upwards, suggesting doubt.

  • Reward

‘Sympathetic’ management is where staff feel rewarded for their contribution rather than having to obey orders.

A company may not be in a position to increase salaries at the drop of a hat, but can reward people with more interesting work, a glowing appraisal and greater responsibility, giving them a sense of achievement, thus empowering them. Unlike monetary rewards, personal encouragement is conveyed non-verbally through tone of voice and gestures which motivate and boost morale. For example, a handclasp emphasises a job well done, a light touch or pat on the back to express praise or congratulation is a subtle way of rewarding good rapport, a smile denotes thanks, a slight nod of the head affirms agreement or recognition. This might all sound like common sense but, if you think about it, we use body language expressions without even realising the connection between the reward and the action, e.g. ‘I was genuinely touched’, ‘I have to hand it to you’, ‘It’s only a small gesture’, ‘You deserve a pat on the back for that’, ‘Thanks for shouldering the burden’.

  • Charisma

‘When the speaker walked into the room I was mesmerised. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I don’t know what it was.

He had a sort of aura, a self-assurance without arrogance – a presence’. Charismatic people often seem to radiate power.

It’s an indefinable quality that gives them that je ne sais quoi. Psychologists have long tried to establish the link between leadership and charisma. Although we tend to think of it as a unique quality of the individual in the spotlight, we actually invest the people we admire with the power to influence us. In other words, charisma exists in the minds of fans and followers.

What is clear is that when a charismatic person enters a room others tend to move away to give him or her space. Sometimes it is simply the hush that descends on the gathering that tells you they are special. We refer to them as being ‘head and shoulders above the rest’, even ‘having us in the palms of their hands’. Their ‘up front’ body language denotes authority which is why we accord them respect for their leadership.

We are living through difficult times at the moment and when jobs are on the line, results matter more than ever. As a manager or team leader, being able to spot the tell-tale signs of overconfidence, under-performance, deception, evasion and distress, will make you a more effective communicator and leader.

The best managers are those who listen, not those who dictate or bully.

To command respect for your expertise and ability to reward others demonstrates positive leadership. Understanding body language enables you to tune in to the thoughts and feelings of colleagues, helping to build trust, raise morale and improve performance. It’s often not what you say, but the way that you say it that makes the greatest difference.

Teach Yourself Body Language for Management In a Week is published by Hodder Education, RRP: £6.99. This article was reproduced in September’s CN courtesy of Stream Publishing, and in association with Any comments? Email

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

Up Next

Related Posts