Actions Speak Loudly: Leaders May Talk about Corporate Values and Goals, but It's Often Their Nonverbal Communication-Their Everyday Attitudes, Behaviors and Decisions-That Gets Heard

By Lee, Thomas J. | Communication World, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

Actions Speak Loudly: Leaders May Talk about Corporate Values and Goals, but It's Often Their Nonverbal Communication-Their Everyday Attitudes, Behaviors and Decisions-That Gets Heard


Lee, Thomas J., Communication World


Nonverbal communication includes day-to-day choices, habits, hunches, expectations and biases.

From our first days of life, we use nonverbal communication to demand change. We cry. We wail. We flail our arms and legs. Eventually, we get our way. Someone comes along with a fresh diaper.

Dry and comfortable once again, we learn an important lesson long before we ever talk: We can speak just fine without words.

The lesson sticks with us. Through adolescence and into adulthood, we communicate many of our needs and wants nonverbally. From smiling at the cute classmate in algebra to driving a flashy red sports car, we implicitly proclaim our interests, values and identity.

That's equally true for managers in the workplace. And it is especially true in management cultures that hoard information, or tiptoe around the truth, or rely on euphemisms to blunt accountability, or nurture a culture of extreme deference and politeness. The more employees must read between the lines for real messages and their true intent, the more nonverbal communication will establish or clarify strategic priorities and cultural norms.

But here's the rub: Most people have only a superficial appreciation of nonverbal communication. They typically think of it merely as body language, facial expression and vocal intonation. They cite examples such as poor posture, idle fidgeting or shifting eyes. Translated, that is evidence of laziness, anxiety or dishonesty.

"Just look at your president," a European friend remarked to me, an American, in 2007. "The way he walks, with his arms wide at his side. It always looks as if he is spoiling for a fight."

Like beauty, such judgments are in the eye of the beholder. Still, those kinds of clues are the least of nonverbal communication. Body language, facial expression and vocal intonation can send plain messages, true. But they pale in the workplace against larger actions that speak

Unless you back up your statements with genuine action, don't be surprised if your employees can see through the mask of propriety. 100 decibels louder than any words possibly can.

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Over the course of 15 years, my colleagues and I have conducted dozens of focus groups with hundreds of employees, both managerial and non-managerial alike. In all these sessions, participants rarely referred to body language, facial expression or vocal intonation (though we have heard more than a few complaints of temperamental managers and careless workers).

In contrast, many have cited larger attitudes, behaviors and decisions that they interpret as signals of inclusion or exclusion, engagement or disengagement, appreciation or scorn, an open mind or a closed mind, strategic or nonstrategic priorities, arrogance or humility, and personal or business focus.

So it's clear that attitudes, behaviors and decisions are powerful communication. On further analysis, it is also clear that they are usually unintended and unmanaged. Neither corporate leaders nor their communication advisers typically plan for non-verbal communication. That's a huge missed opportunity.

What exactly do these attitudes, behaviors and decisions consist of? For better or worse, they are day-to-day choices, habits, hunches, expectations and biases, especially on the part t of managers--things like setting a tight new deadline or tougher quality threshold, leaving early after draping a sweater on the chair, neglecting to return a voice mail message, taking a summer intern to lunch, approving a substandard piece of work, flying coach instead of first class, firing a supervisor who is abusive to women--or, all too common, retreating from an important question about the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room.

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Reinforcing the vision Implicit, nonverbal communication is especially powerful, and especially unfortunate when it conflicts with written norms such as a values statement, a production quota or standard, a job description, a corporate vision, or an ethics code. …

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