Why Is Body Language Important in Leadership?
Body language is a leadership superpower. It can help you in all aspects of your work communication…
- Encourage teammates with the right nonverbal cues.
- Read subtle, hidden messages from clients and customers.
- Prevent misunderstandings by controlling the nonverbal signals you are sending to others.
- Develop a confident and magnetic presence.
Not sure where to start? Vanessa breaks down leaders’ body language to help you understand these key body language cues.
10 Body Language Cues for Leaders
Here are ten body language cues for leaders to boost your confidence and strengthen your position and relationships.
1. Be Assertive
According to a study from Columbia and Stanford, assertiveness is the most significant reported problem for leaders. Leaders often struggle to find the sweet spot between over-assertive and under-assertive. While aggression is about power and domination, assertive behavior is having respect for yourself and others. You can demonstrate assertiveness by speaking decisively and taking up space. This is especially important if your physical appearance leads to being easily dismissed.
If you’re not sure how to find that balance, Russell Brand provides an excellent example. You may have seen his interview with Morning Joe that has been analyzed and re-analyzed. If not, stop everything and watch it now.
In the interview, Russel Brand demonstrates varying degrees of assertiveness based on the people’s behavior in the room. From the start of the interview, the news anchors are disrespectful and rude, placing Russel in a complicated situation. An overly assertive or aggressive celebrity may have handled this much less graciously.
Russell indicates nonverbally (notice his lips and eyes) that he isn’t pleased with how people treat him. In the midst of it, he maintains a seated power pose. He begins gesturing with open palms and alternates between leaning forward and back. Despite being mistreated, he maintains direct eye contact and doesn’t allow them to dismiss him.
At the start, he places verbal boundaries and even redirects the conversation several times.
As the interview escalates, he never hesitates, but his behavior becomes more assertive and direct.
Amazingly, he doesn’t only take charge of the entire table. He expands his influence to take control of the whole room. Even when he’s visibly upset, he consciously keeps his body language open and relaxed.
When you’re working on being more (or less!) assertive, remember that people around you deserve to be treated with respect, even if they aren’t respecting you.
- Take note of how you interact with others.
- Do you hesitate when making decisions? If you need more time, instead of hesitating, ask a clarifying question.
- Your nonverbals can include active listening, such as nodding and leaning toward the other person.
- Practice confidently saying, “I’ll get back to you on that.” Just make sure you do get back to them.
- If someone is dismissive or rude, respond by demonstrating the kind of behavior you expect. Think of Russell at the beginning, where he effusively engages with a compliment after first being insulted (:34).
- If someone persists in negative behavior, call it out verbally without being direct. For example, when Russell Brand calls out the news anchors (4:19) by talking about media manipulation in general rather than their behavior specifically.
- If you usually take up a small amount of space, expand your body. This is especially true for women who take up as little space as possible because it is what people taught them.
On the flip side, make sure you respect other people’s space.
Extra Nonverbals of Assertiveness
- Steeple your fingers. Lightly press the tops of your fingers together, making the shape of a steeple. Don’t overuse this, but it makes you look as highly confident.
- Use palm down gestures. Make sure you don’t have a limp wrist. Gesture with open palms faced down. The downward-facing palms indicate you are confident in what you are saying.
- When sitting, place your ankle over your knee. This is one of the most assertive poses you can take (except manspreading, which you should avoid at all costs). Just be careful with this one. Depending on the situation, it can also communicate defiance and argumentativeness.
2. Use Vocal Power
When most people think about nonverbals, they think of body language and facial expressions, but voice, tone, and pitch are aspects of nonverbal behavior. In the interview below, George Clooney and Julia Roberts demonstrate two separate examples of vocal power.
Both George and Julia deepen their voice and finish sentences as statements instead of questions. Their voices are calm with varied intonation. Even though Julia deepens her voice at different points, she allows her voice to take a natural range and doesn’t suppress her normal vocal tone.
Not everyone has a George Clooney voice, but it’s less about having a deep voice and more about finding the perfect vocal range for you. Why is that important? When people feel anxious or perceive themselves as less dominant, their pitch often increases.
- Next time you’re driving or in the bathroom, practice deepening your voice. This is easier to get comfortable doing when you’re alone. Just don’t deepen your voice so much it’s unnatural; no one wants to be Elizabeth Holmes.
- If you often let your words trail off, practice ending sentences confidently.
- If you raise the inflection at the end of sentences, it sounds like a question (uptalk). Instead, make sure your inflection makes a statement.
Deepening your vocal tone in this way communicates strength and confidence. Your voice will help you communicate authority which then puts other people at ease.
If you’re still nervous to try this at work, practice with friends, family, or when ordering at the drive-thru. Don’t drag out the practice, though! After a couple of days or a week at the max, start implementing this at work.
3. Smile Less…and only authentically
Is there anyone more charismatic or attention-grabbing than James Bond? Daniel Craig personifies easy charm with a seriousness of persona that makes people want to follow him. No one could accuse him of over smiling, but this fits his personality, and when he does smile, it’s significant.
Daniel Craig shows us to save your smiles for when you mean it. Research proves this is best for leaders because smiling is considered an appeasing behavior that signals lower social status or prestige. Because of this, leaders should avoid smiling too much or inauthentically.
This does NOT mean you should stop smiling altogether. You don’t want to be one of those leaders who intimidates people the second you walk into the room.
Smiling is a wonderful warmth cue. It can send positive vibes and be encouraging. However, many leaders think they have to smile all the time. Nothing is worse than an inauthentic smile.
Here’s the key: Smile purposefully.
A purposeful smile can help alleviate tension and motivate your employees.
Smile when you are truly impressed or enthused. And make sure it’s a genuine Duchenne smile. Genuine smiles reach up into our eyes, and upper cheek smiles. The big takeaway: Smile real or don’t smile at all.
- Take note of how much you smile at work today.
- Do you find yourself smiling more around certain people at work? Is this because you feel relaxed around them or find them disingenuous and use smiling as a placating and protective barrier?
- If this is an appeasement response to a toxic coworker, experiment with smiling less and note how you feel and how they respond.
- If you don’t naturally smile often, don’t worry. Next time you start a meeting or give positive feedback, add a genuine smile.
- Start looking for the nonverbals people give when you affirm or welcome them with a smile.
When you begin to see how meaningful this can be, it may make it easier for you to smile.
4. Be Mentally (and Physically) Prepared
It takes a tenth of a second for strangers to form an impression about you.
No pressure, right? You can make a positive first impression by understanding the importance of body language and being prepared. When you mentally prepare in advance, that impacts your physical state and your emotional state.
In 2021, Simone Biles shocked the world when she withdrew from five of her finals at the Olympics. She understood that being mentally unprepared could have terrible consequences on herself (with physical injury) and her team. Some people criticized her decision, yet she demonstrated how important this principle is (even if you don’t fear competing in the Olympics). Mental preparedness changes everything.
From the beginning, Simone captured the hearts and attention of the watching public. Her body language, even when nervous, exudes an energy that connects with us on an emotional level.
Action Steps Before Your Next Business Meeting:
- Pull back your shoulders to expand your chest.
- Breathe deeply.
- Focus on what it is you want to accomplish in the meeting.
- Shake off your nerves. Literally! You might want to close your door before you give a little shimmy and shake so people don’t think you’ve finally lost it.
- Redirect any nervous energy into confidence and excitement about the outcome of the meeting.
- Smile to yourself. Though the impact on your body may be small, smiling calms negative energy by releasing neuropeptides and the feel-good neurotransmitters: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins.
After preparing mentally, your body language cues will indicate you are calm and relaxed. As a result, you’ll look more confident.
5. Slow it Down
If you watch videos of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell entering a room and speaking in interviews, he had a straight but open posture, entered every space with confidence and command, and used controlled gestures that matched his facial expressions. As a very busy man, he never appeared hurried or harried.
- Intentionally slow down your body movements in meetings and casual conversation.
- Regulate your breathing, and don’t speak too quickly.
- If you get flustered or find yourself speeding up, take a moment to pause and breathe.
As you slow down your movements to a calm and controlled rate, you communicate that you are in control of yourself and any business situations. This can also help others around you regulate to match your energy.
Quick, jerky movements communicate that you aren’t in control of the situation, or worse, that you’re trying to control others around you. Instead, when you take your time, it communicates that you are in charge and outside pressures don’t have the power to intimidate you.
6. But…Also, Relax
In interviews, Dwayne Johnson, actor and former wrestler is nothing but relaxed. Despite his intimidating physique, he inhabits space with an intentionally calm and laid-back attitude. Usually, leaning back can be a sign of disengagement or negative feelings. Instead, it feels like he’s leaning back to show he’s not going to use his physical power in this situation.
This is an excellent example for you to think about how much physical power you have. You can use more or fewer power cues based on your physique to create a perfect blend of charisma.
He also uses open hand gestures, and he smiles a lot. These non-threatening behaviors make others feel more comfortable and less threatened or nervous with their physical power.
- At work, are your shoulders tight and lifted towards your ears? Relax them and intentionally lower your shoulders.
- Where are your arms when you are seated in meetings? Can you rest them more openly to appear (and feel) more relaxed?
- Do you fidget with your pen, fiddle with coins in your pocket, or self-touch during conversation or meetings? Reduce self-touching and, where possible, limit fidgeting.
Consider how Dwayne Johnson balances his aggressive appearance with a relaxed personality. If others view you as intimidating, pull back a little and explore what you need to feel calmer. Stressing people with over-the-top aggression is not good leadership and ultimately hampers daily operations.
7. Express Warmth
Hopefully, your goal isn’t world domination…
So, your leadership style should include some warmth, and you can accomplish much of this through body language. Expressing warmth in the workplace builds trust and safety.
Whether covering funeral expenses for victims of gun violence or buying a bike for a kid at Walmart, Shaq is all about the warmth. Despite his impressive height and physique, he often feels more like a teddy bear than an intimidating basketball player.
His kindness and quiet warmth are magnetic, and it’s all about his open body language. He uses open hand gestures directed toward the person he’s talking to, and his attention is focused and direct. He also takes in the audience and engages with them as though they are directly a part of the conversation.
- Pay attention to your voice, avoiding abrupt, terse, or dismissive tones of voice.
- Avoid suddenly loud, quick, or aggressive movements that could startle others.
- Maintain good eye contact, but don’t force eye contact if your employee seems uncomfortable with this.
- Focus on the person who is speaking without being distracted.
- Ask questions to understand the other person’s point of view.
- Try verbal mirroring, where you repeat what the person has said or pick out specific words to mirror.
8. Observe the Cues People Give You
The core of solid leadership is awareness of others and understanding their nonverbal cues. When you learn how to read body language, this increases your emotional intelligence and helps you connect with your employees. Communication is reciprocal, and your goal isn’t to exert power with your body language but to communicate openly and clearly with others.
No one does this better than Oprah Winfrey.
Her success as a talk show host largely depends on her ability to read and understand the people she is interviewing. She is self-aware, but she is alert to the nonverbal cues others are sending her. This includes the people in her audience. She demonstrates just how powerful this is by giving us interviews over the years that have touched our hearts.
- Check out our guide on body language 101.
- Watch this video. Vanessa breaks down the science of body language to help you immediately decode nonverbal cues others are sending you at work.
9. Use Silence
If you find yourself rambling on, always filling the silence when you’re nervous, this is more counterproductive than you may realize.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and activist, demonstrates beautifully how to use silence and pauses in conversation. If you listen to him in interviews, he uses pauses to emphasize words as well as to maintain a calm presence.
This technique may seem to come naturally to a monk, but whether you’re seeking world peace and meditating daily or just trying to get through your next meeting, silence is a technique that requires practice and patience.
Unfortunately, silence is probably the most underutilized body language cue.
Getting participation in meetings can feel like pulling teeth, and facing a room full of disgruntled employees does not feel pretty. In these situations, we understand how hard silence can be.
Use silence to signal the importance of the moment or emphasize what you are saying.
Learn to lean into silence, even (or especially) when it feels awkward.
- In a meeting, try walking from one point of the room to another—time it to stop walking and also verbally pause before making the point you want to emphasize.
- If you’re speaking online, verbally indicate “this is important,” then pause in silence before giving the vital information.
- If you’re trying to encourage verbal interaction and all you get is monosyllable replies, use silence to draw out more. When they respond, nod three times, then wait. This cues them to keep talking.
- If you’re an extrovert who always rushes to fill the silence, count to ten and wait to see if your quieter coworkers will speak up.
- If you’re an introvert who lets the silence drag on indefinitely, start pacing yourself so that silence is more controlled. Count to five, and then speak up!
10. Build Inner Confidence
Learning to be a better leader doesn’t mean changing everything about yourself. Some of the best leaders don’t match up to the skills we expect them to have, and that’s ok. There are more critical things than public speaking skills or natural charisma. When we look at history, it’s ordinary people, often quiet and unassuming people, who have been the catalysts for dramatic change.
In 2015, Malala was shot in her head. She was fifteen. Her crime? Publicly advocating for the right of girls in Pakistan to receive an education. Her father had run a girls’ school before the Taliban takeover, and indeed, that contributed to her inner confidence to stand up for what she believed.
Yet she continues to display confidence and strength despite the trauma she went through. Today, Malala Yousafzai is an activist and Nobel Prize, laureate. Her inner confidence positioned her to lead and influence others in ways she couldn’t have imagined.
What are the things you already do well? We have no doubt there is something uniquely beautiful about you. It’s time you discover your uniqueness and lean into it with confidence.
Do you struggle to communicate with the team as a group, but when people enter your office, you are excellent at listening?
Are you a terrible public speaker, but your team knows you will never ask them to do something that you won’t do yourself?
- Make a list of your strengths, or ask three trusted individuals to list three things you excel at.
- Brainstorm how you can refine and more effectively use those strengths in the workplace.
- If you often see the best in others, add a mentoring component to your one-to-ones.
- If you love the big picture, don’t keep that to yourself. Communicate the end goal to employees, so they feel invested in the work they are doing.
- If you are excellent at influencing others, use that power of persuasion on behalf of others who are more reticent to make requests.
As you work on your body language cues, much of what you communicate comes from feeling about yourself. True confidence welcomes others into your circle while being arrogant or overly self-conscious pushes others away.
Body Language For Leaders FAQs
Yes! Leaders do use open body language. Your body language should be relaxed while still maintaining good posture. Open body language shows you have nothing to hide and inspires confidence.
Body language is important in business because nonverbals are a big part of how people communicate. Body language communicates on a much deeper level than just verbal communication. Leaders need to be aware of the impact of their nonverbal cues, so they are creating a safe and positive company culture.
People communicate Body Language through facial expressions, gestures or cues, proximity or personal space, vocal tone, eye gaze, touch, and artifacts (tattoos, piercings, eyeglasses, purses, etc.).
Positive body language is another way of referring to open body language. All the examples in this guide have been positive body language to put others at ease and build effective communication.
Body language affects a person’s impression of you almost immediately. Even the smallest of nonverbal gestures show whether you are approachable, confident and if you’re really in charge. It not only affects a person’s impression of you, but it provides structure to know how they should act in the work environment.
Reading body language can make you a better leader because it helps you discern what is going on in your team. You can pick up on tensions between co-workers, discern how people respond to you, and recognize what individual employees need.
Leadership Body Language Takeaways
- Understanding body language is one of the essential leadership skills.
- With the correct body language, you can shift the way others perceive and interact with you.
- Nonverbal skills pave the way to positive relationships at work.
- Understanding the science of body language increases your emotional intelligence and gives you a real competitive advantage.
- Don’t over smile, but do communicate warmth.
- Focus on what your voice is communicating. Deepen your voice and finish sentences with confidence.
- Move with a purpose to demonstrate you are in control of the situation and remain calm in difficult situations.
- Balance assertive cues with a relaxed demeanor.
- Build your inner confidence, and the other body language cues will become easier to implement.
Don’t stop here!
Crack The Code on Facial Expressions
The human face is constantly sending signals, and we use it to understand the person’s intentions when we speak to them.
In Decode, we dive deep into these microexpressions to teach you how to instantly pick up on them and understand the meaning behind what is said to you.
Don’t spend another day living in the dark.