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Unspoken Signals: Common Body Language Mistakes to Avoid in the Workplace

Patrick Barnett
Patrick Barnett

Success is a common aspiration. But actually achieving success is not always as common.

Even with training, education, and hard work, there are some individuals who have yet to reach their success goals.

It could be that the culprit lies in what isn't being said. Nonverbal communication is what is seen, beyond what is said.

Today we will discuss this one set of factors that might be ruining your chances at attaining success. Let's dive right in.

1. Inconsistent Messages

According to Professor Albert Mehrabian's research, your facial expressions communicate 55 percent of your true feelings and attitudes; and your tone, 38 percent. (Leaving seven percent for what is actually spoken.) How does this pertain to success? In the business world, when you say one thing but your facial expression communicates something different, you appear untrustworthy because your words and nonverbal expressions don't match up. An alternative: 

  • Communicate your thoughts honestly, and your facial expressions will likely reflect what you say.

2. Nervousness and Awkward Hand Placement

When you're frustrated or overwhelmed, where do you place your hands? Do you find yourself tugging at articles of clothing, placing your hands on your face, or twirling your hair? Successful people never rub their hands on their face, neck, or make fictitious fires by rubbing their palms together. They also avoid holding both hands in front of their groin area, referred to as the fig leaf pose. (A blunder committed by men and women alike.) Acting nervous or intimidated in front of team members and employees causes them to lose confidence in you because you appear to lack self-confidence when you demonstrate nervousness in the open. An alternative: 

  • Practice power poses behind closed doors. According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, nonverbal behaviors not only influence those around you, but you as well. A couple of suggestions are to stand with your hands on your hips like a super hero or with your arms extended upward in victory for at least two minutes. Such poses increase confidence and decrease stress levels. Results are mixed, but it's worth a try.

3. Imposing Demeanor

Alternatively, you don't want to appear over-confident or aggressive, either. Clenched fists, intense eye contact, and angry looks are all undesirable nonverbal cues. Employees may begin to fearfully obey you and potential clients may not want to be consumed by your energy. Alternatives: 

  • Smiling genuinely and at appropriate times makes you appear more approachable and trustworthy. Smiling also reduces stress.
  • Make room for others' personal space; at least 18 inches.
  • Adopt a relaxed, but assertive stance.

4. Inattentiveness

Crossing your arms, rolling your eyes, frequently checking the clock or your wristwatch, turning away, or avoiding eye contact altogether makes you look bored, aloof, and closed off from others' perspectives. Alternatives: 

  • Eye contact speaks to your interest in, and respect for, what others have to say.
  • Angling your body during a heated discussion reduces tension and allows you to stand your ground without appearing confrontational.

5. Exaggerated Gestures

Flailing arms and other similar gestures can invade others' personal space. Amplifying mannerisms portrays you as one who inflates the truth and is possibly frenzied. Alternatives: 

  • You can still gesture to clearly express thoughts and raise others' confidence about your credibility. But rein in your hand movements some and relax your arms when you aren't speaking. 
  • Firm, but gentle handshakes communicate assertiveness. But too firm a handshake is linked to aggression, which is a turn off.
  • Calm confidence exudes strength in most situations.

6. Slouching

When you hunch over, you appear small, exhausted, and powerless. An alternative:

  • Good posture not only helps you fill your personal space, it communicates confidence, as long as you're upright but not rigid.

7. Excessive Appeasement

Do you remember bobble head figures? Their constant up and down movement annoyingly mimicked head nodding. It's mutually unbeneficial to pretend to always agree with coworkers or employees. An alternative: 

  • It's more commendable to honestly express disagreement than to insincerely agree in order to make those around you feel more comfortable. Keep your head still or tilt it slightly and respectfully speak your mind.

Wrapping It Up

By remembering that people see what you say more than they hear what you say, you can become more mindful of how your nonverbal communication might impact others, and ultimately, how it might impact your success.

Image Credit: Fizkes / Getty Images
Patrick Barnett
Patrick Barnett Member
Patrick is a Licensed Investigator (CA Bureau of Security) with more than 12 years of investigative experience. He is a background investigator for various city and county organizations. Patrick is an expert in the federal and state laws governing employment background checks. He speaks Spanish and enjoys mixing up tasty cocktails. Contact for more information