It is widely accepted that non-verbal communication is extremely influential in interpersonal encounters, and non-verbal signals (i.e. everything except the words themselves), including body language, eye contact, tone of voice and rapidity of speech, can have a subtle but significant influence on the dynamic between two people. For leaders in a professional context, there is no exception.
I have recently completed new research exploring non-verbal communication in leadership roles, and the results suggest that contrary to many traditional beliefs, there is no one single ‘best’ way to look and act like a leader. Instead, three behavioural studies which I conducted point to the fact that leaders should consciously adjust their non-verbal strategy to the specific situation in order to get the best out of their team and make optimum decisions.
In general, the accepted view on non-verbal leadership is that confidence and authority should be conveyed. This means, for example, using upright body posture, direct eye contact, and a confident tone of voice. The results of the first study in my research project reflected exactly this. A pair of participants were assigned roles, where one was ‘leader’ and the other ‘subordinate’, and in almost every case the ‘leader’ participant immediately took on confidence-displaying non-verbal behaviour, such as sitting up straighter, taking up more space, and using more eye contact.
In some situations, displaying a confident and powerful non-verbal demeanour can have a damaging effect.
However, my research has exposed the fact that displaying this type of confident and authoritative non-verbal communication is not always the best approach for a leader to take – and in fact in some situations, this can have a damaging effect. Instead, it is crucial for leaders to adjust their non-verbal behaviour according to the specific situation, in order to achieve optimum results.
Leaders often rely on members of their team to collect data, and there will be many cases where a leader needs the insight, knowledge or expertise from a member of their team in order to reach an optimum decision. In situations such as this, displaying a confident and powerful non-verbal demeanour can have a negative impact. My research has shown that a person reporting in to a leader will be much less likely to share information, participate in a collaborative discussion of ideas, and argue their own point of view, when dealing with a leader who is displaying traditional authoritative non-verbal behaviour.
This is not necessarily because the person in the subordinate role feels intimidated by the leader, but rather because they are receiving strong signals that the leader is extremely sure of themselves, and they will therefore assume that their own opinion and knowledge is less valid than that of the leader. For example, they will be less likely to argue for a new approach to an issue, or bring to light relevant facts, if those do not align with the views of the leader. The leader might therefore unwittingly miss out on receiving key information and insight on an issue.
Participants in the second study in my research project were assigned the ‘subordinate’ role and given the task of communicating information about the best person to hire for an imaginary job to a ‘leader’ (who, unbeknownst to them, was an actor). When interacting with half the participants, the actor playing the ‘leader’ was briefed to take on a confident demeanour, including strong posture, confident tone of voice, and direct eye contact. In contrast, with the other half of the participants, the actor displayed a less confident demeanour, including slumped posture, less direct eye contact, and uncertain tone of voice.
In the first case, the ‘subordinate’ participants failed to share the full information they had been given and did not persist in their arguments when the ‘leader’ chose to hire the least qualified person for the job. In comparison, the second group of participants shared far more information and argued back strongly when the ‘leader’ expressed a desire to choose the wrong person for the job.
At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive for leaders to appear timid and uncertain, and of course any non-verbal communication which goes as far as undermining respect and confidence in the leader will be detrimental and is not recommended. However the results of this study bring to light an extremely important distinction in the type of behaviour appropriate for different leadership situations.
At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive for leaders to appear timid and uncertain…
Our standard way of thinking about leadership sees leaders as influencers, i.e. influencing people and directing work. But leaders also have a second key role, as facilitators. In some situations leaders benefit from stepping out of the influencer role, and instead taking on the different non-verbal demeanour of a more neutral listener, in order to facilitate the sharing of information and collaboration in decision-making.
My research explored the non-verbal behaviours which underpin the facilitator role, ones that signal ‘open’ communication, such as uncrossed arms and legs, body oriented toward the other person, and nodding and maintaining eye contact while listening. Participants in my third and final study were again assigned a ‘subordinate’ role in the same task, helping the ‘leader’ choose the best candidate for a job. This time, there were four scenarios where the actor was briefed to display four different demeanours to different groups of participants – confident versus non-confident, and ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ (i.e., body oriented away from the ‘subordinate’, arms and legs crossed, minimal eye contact, etc.). The results show that when a ‘leader’ displayed confident demeanour combined with ‘open’ characteristics, the ‘subordinate’ was highly likely to communicate all the relevant information they had been given and participate usefully in the hiring decision.
This means that leaders do not need to display the counterintuitive, and potentially damaging, uncertain and timid non-verbal behaviour as my second study might have initially suggested. Instead, my third study found that the negative effects of confident and authoritative non-verbal communication can be successfully mitigated when an ‘open’ facilitator role is used by a confident leader.
This is a key lesson that I teach in my leadership classes at LSE: effective leadership involves adapting to the situation. This includes adjusting non-verbal demeanour and moving between influencer and facilitator roles. An outstanding leader is someone who can clearly understand a situation, and adapt their leadership style and behaviour accordingly.
Connson Locke is Assistant Professor of Management at the LSE Department of Management. She teaches leadership to LSE executive students, and holds the role of Deputy Programme Director for the flagship Executive Global Master’s in Management programme, an innovative alternative to an MBA.