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Updated Mar 12, 2024

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

Are you guilty of poor nonverbal communication? Avoid making these negative body language mistakes at work.

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Skye Schooley, Senior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
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Communication plays an integral role in the success of both employees and businesses. Knowing how to effectively communicate with others can help you land a job, build and maintain positive work relationships, earn clients, retain customers, and so much more. However, an important aspect to understand about communication is that it’s not all verbal. People see what you say more than they hear what you say. Learn which types of body language cues to avoid in the workplace to improve your communication skills.

Which types of body language should be avoided at work?

Be mindful of how your nonverbal communication might come off to others and how it might impact your individual and company success. Here are seven key nonverbal cues to avoid.

Inconsistent messages

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. Instead of sending mixed signals, communicate your thoughts honestly and ensure your facial expressions reflect what you say.

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 or neck, or make figurative 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,” because it suggests they’re unimportant.

Acting nervous or intimidated in front of team members, employees or customers can cause them to lose confidence in you because you appear to lack self-confidence. Whether you do these behaviors out of nerves or habit, it can be helpful to assess which physical behaviors you are guilty of and practice avoiding them.

Imposing demeanor

You don’t want to appear overconfident or aggressive. 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 overly strong energy.

Personal space graphic

Instead, adopt a relaxed but assertive demeanor. Make room for others’ personal space – at least 18 inches. Smile genuinely and at appropriate times to appear more approachable and trustworthy. As a bonus, smiling also reduces stress!

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. People won’t want to do business with you if you appear uninterested in their ideas or needs.

One way you can appear attentive is to make direct eye contact. It speaks to your interest in, and respect for, what others have to say. Also, angling your body during a heated discussion reduces tension and allows you to stand your ground without appearing confrontational.

Slouching

When you hunch over, you appear small, exhausted and powerless. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect clients or colleagues to believe in you? Good posture not only helps you fill your personal space, but it also communicates confidence, as long as you’re upright but not rigid.

Excessive appeasement

It’s not beneficial to pretend to always agree with co-workers or employees. Different opinions and outlooks can be advantageous at times, spurring growth and innovation. It’s more commendable to honestly express disagreement than to insincerely agree to make those around you feel more comfortable. Keep your head still or tilt it slightly and respectfully speak your mind instead of doing vigorous, repeated nods.

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 – not ideal traits in the business world. You can still gesture to clearly express thoughts and raise others’ confidence in your credibility, but rein in your hand movements and relax your arms when you aren’t speaking.

FYIDid you know
Firm but gentle handshakes communicate assertiveness, but too firm a handshake is linked to aggression, which is a turnoff. Calm confidence exudes strength in most situations.

What is body language?

While you may know what body language mistakes to avoid, be sure you fully understand all aspects of body language, both good and bad. Body language is nonverbal communication cues you send to others based on how you look, speak and act. Nonverbal communication is what is seen, beyond what is said. This can include things like your appearance, facial expressions, loudness, tone of voice, intonation and body movements. The message you send with your body language may be intentional or unintentional, but it can communicate more than your words, so it’s important to understand how you’re perceived by others.

Nonverbal communication graph

Why is positive body language in the workplace important?

According to Albert Mehrabian’s well-known communications research from the 1960s, nonverbal language accounts for 93% of total communication, with 55% of that being facial expressions and 38% being loudness and tone of voice. That only leaves 7% for what is actually spoken. Since communication is one of the most critical aspects of business, positive body language is essential in the workplace if you want to have successful working relationships with employees and customers.

Positive nonverbal communication can help you get people in the workplace to trust and respect you, whether they’re supervisors, co-workers, shareholders, clients, customers, or anyone else you interact with at work. It’s also an important factor for anyone working in a consumer-facing role, since a worker with a “bad attitude” can easily become the catalyst for an irate customer’s negative online review.

Bottom LineBottom line
Positive body language in the workplace is essential for building and managing professional relationships.

Which types of body language should be avoided over video conferencing?

If you’re like many other workers around the globe, video conferencing has become an integral part of your job or business. Although you may be more comfortable logging in to a Zoom call today than you were two years ago, there are a variety of nonverbal mistakes you may be unknowingly making. Since you have a limited view of the person on the other end of a video chat, it’s important you use proper nonverbal communication techniques to portray the most confident, interested businessperson you can be.

Here are some common nonverbal communication mistakes to avoid when video conferencing. 

Unkempt appearance

A disheveled appearance with a scruffy face or messy hair can send the wrong message that you don’t care about the opinion of the person you are talking to. Although it has become somewhat acceptable to log in to a video call in pajamas or workout clothes, it’s important to dress the part at work (even when working remotely) so that you appear professional and focused. This is especially critical when conducting business with key stakeholders you need to impress. Dressing up can also boost your confidence, which will show in your demeanor.

Lack of eye contact

As with in-person nonverbal communication, eye contact is incredibly important over video calls. Eye contact makes you appear more trustworthy and helps you build relationships. Making eye contact can be somewhat challenging via video conferencing, depending on how your webcam is set up. Try to set your webcam directly in front of you, just above eye level. Look directly into the camera to make it appear as though you’re making eye contact with the person on the other end.

Another big mistake many people make is staring at themselves the whole time they’re on a video chat. This can be hard to avoid, especially if you’re not used to virtual meetings, but you can learn and practice proper video conferencing etiquette. 

TipBottom line
If you're new to video conferencing, here's some advice on how to run a successful virtual meeting.

Poor lighting

When you’re preparing for an online business meeting, try to find an area with good lighting so the other people on the call can see your face. Since facial expressions account for 55% of communication, it’s important others can clearly see your expressions and match them with your words. Participating in a call with a giant shadow over your face can be distracting (and slightly terrifying) to other attendees and can make it hard for others to interpret or trust what you’re saying.

Sitting too close or far from the screen

The way your face and body are positioned in the frame of a video conferencing call is just as important as the way you’re positioned during an in-person meeting. Sitting too close to the screen can feel uncomfortable for the other person and appear as though you’re invading their personal space. It also doesn’t allow them to see your hand gestures, which are a great way to signify warmth and personality.

On the other hand, sitting too far away can make it difficult for the other person to see your facial expressions. To solve this, sit straightforward and about an arm’s length away from the camera.

Fidgeting and touching your face

Whether you’re talking to someone in person or over video, fidgeting and touching your face comes across as nervousness. When you exude nervous tendencies, you appear as though you lack confidence in yourself and what you’re saying. Although sitting at a desk can make it easy to fall into patterns of touching your face and resting your head in your palm, you can avoid this by sitting up straight with your hands down and away from your face.

Patrick Barnett contributed to the writing and research in this article.

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Skye Schooley, Senior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
Skye Schooley is a dedicated business professional who is especially passionate about human resources and digital marketing. For more than a decade, she has helped clients navigate the employee recruitment and customer acquisition processes, ensuring small business owners have the knowledge they need to succeed and grow their companies. In recent years, Schooley has enjoyed evaluating and comparing HR software and other human resources solutions to help businesses find the tools and services that best suit their needs. With a degree in business communications, she excels at simplifying complicated subjects and interviewing business vendors and entrepreneurs to gain new insights. Her guidance spans various formats, including newsletters, long-form videos and YouTube Shorts, reflecting her commitment to providing valuable expertise in accessible ways.
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