Success in your career can come from a number of things, many of which have little or nothing to do with your actual job description. There are proven ways to make a good first impression at work, and often decisions you’ve made before entering the workforce have a significant influence on your earnings and your job satisfaction. Beyond those types of factors, the day-to-day ways you interact with your peers and your boss can go a long way toward solidifying positive relationships — or tearing them down. The nonverbal communication you use, even you’re not aware of it yourself, can serve as major signals to those around you if you’re invested in your work, whether you’re open to input, and if you have the confidence necessary to succeed in your office.
Dr. Travis Bradberry, a clinical psychologist who has become an expert in emotional intelligence, wrote a blog post on LinkedIn about some of the bad habits that cause more damage at work than you might think. Bradberry is a co-author of the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, which describes this sort of knowledge as the following: “Today, emotional intelligence (EQ) needs little introduction. This ‘other kind of smart’ is the No. 1 predictor of success both personally and professionally. But knowing what it is and knowing how to use it to improve your life are two very different things.”
According to Bradberry and co-author Jean Graves’ work, 70% of people do not handle conflict or stress effectively, and just 15% of people feel respected and valued by their employers. As such, the some of the greatest potential for using misleading body language happens in the workplace. According to research from Bradberry’s TalentSmart firm, 90% of top performers in their respective careers also rank high in terms of emotional intelligence. “These people know the power that unspoken signals have in communication and they monitor their own body language accordingly,” Bradberry writes in his post on LinkedIn.
You might know that it makes sense to monitor your body language, but it’s important to understand the messages you send when body language goes awry. That way, you can be sure to avoid simple and all-too-common mistakes, or know how to fix them in the future. Here are five postures to avoid at all cost, and what they really say about you in the workplace.
1. Inappropriate eye contact
Eye contact is one of those things that can become a stumbling block because of how much it needs to be balanced. Carol Kinsey Goman, who is another expert in body language, wrote in a blog post for Forbes that eye contact is the “Goldilocks” of nonverbal communication. “Too much eye contact is instinctively felt to be rude, hostile and condescending; and in a business context, it may also be perceived as a deliberate intent to dominate, intimidate, belittle, or make the other feel at a disadvantage.” But too little eye contact, Goman writes, “…can make you appear uneasy, unprepared, and insincere.” This can be seen often in patient’s complaints about medical care, who often perceive a doctor’s lack of eye contact as “lack of caring,” Goman explained.
Eye contact conveys other information, too, Bradberry says. Avoiding eye contact altogether makes it seem like you have something to hide, which makes anything you’re saying seem suspect. Americans maintain eye contact for seven to 10 seconds at a time, or slightly longer if they’re listening to another person. Even the way you break eye contact can send a message, Bradberry writes. Glancing down communicates submission, or that you lack confidence. Looking to the side projects confidence.
One more tip Bradberry offers: keep your eyes level if you’re making a particularly complicated or important point. This could be especially valuable in a business presentation, or even when negotiating for a raise.
2. Slouching at your desk or in a meeting
Your shoulders and overall posture while at work can communicate quite a bit about you without the need to ever utter a word. For starters, Bradberry states that the brain is “hardwired” to equate the power with the amount of space people take up. If your shoulders look like you’re about to curl into a ball, you’re doing yourself a lot of harm by projecting to others that you don’t command attention or respect. Joe Navarro, a 25-year veteran of the FBI and author of What Every Body is Saying, wrote in guest column for Psychology Today that the shoulders communicate many things to people around you. Hunched shoulders can indicate that someone is lying, Navarro says, and criminals will often target people who seemed more passive, which is often communicated by slouched shoulders.
At work, especially in conversations with your boss, be extra vigilant about the state of your posture. Among all the other negative connotations, Bradberry says slouching is a sign of disrespect. “You would never tell your boss, ‘I don’t understand why I have to listen to you,’ but if you slouch, you don’t have to—your body says it for you, loud and clear,” he writes.
If the negative message isn’t enough motivation to practice sitting and standing up straight, perhaps your own health will convince you. “People who sit at a desk for a long period of time tend to roll their shoulders in and hang their head forward,” Dr. Jason Queiros, a chiropractor at Stamford Sports and Spine in Connecticut, told Men’s Fitness. “Every inch you hold your head forward, you add 10 pounds of pressure on your spine.” When you finally do lean back again, like at the end of the day, the overworked muscles tense up, which can lead to tension headaches. Slouching can also cause jaw pain, issues from a misaligned spine, and balance problems. If slouching is just a bad habit, not an outlook on like, Queiros suggests sitting for no longer than 30 minutes at a time, with at least a five minute break in between. That way, you have a chance to refresh your position.
3. Weak handshakes
This is interviewing 101 — your handshake needs to be just right (kind of like the Goldilocks approach with eye contact). A study completed in 2000 by several University of Alabama scholars and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded that the overall perception of a good, or “firm” handshake relies on the quality of several factors, including strength, vigor, duration, eye contact, and completeness of grip. Not only that, but a weak handshake can be an indicator of larger health problems. This might not be something your employer thinks about right away, but a study published in May 2015 states that a weak handshake, or lack of much grip strength, can be an indicator of cardiovascular disease or even cancer in high-income countries.
All of that aside, the basics in terms of handshakes are still true. A too-weak grip indicates that you lack authority and confidence, Bradberry says. On the flip side, a handshake that is too strong and overpowering can be perceived as a power grab or an “aggressive attempt at domination,” which he says is just as bad as a weak grip. “Adapt your handshake to each person and situation, but make sure it’s always firm,” Bradberry advises.
4. Exaggerated gestures
Gestures can be vital for effective communication. Dr. Susan Weinschenk, in a column for Psychology Today, writes that using no hand gestures at all shows indifference, and that you aren’t really invested in what you’re talking about. Having your hands open and palms facing upward while you’re in a conversation shows that you are being honest and open to the ideas in the conversation. But other gestures you make with your hands or arms can communicate more negative messages. Gestures that are larger than the outside of your body, for example, can sometimes illustrate that the idea you’re discussing is large or abstract. But if all of your movements are that way, Weinschenk says, “you will communicate that you are chaotic or out of control.”
The larger-than-life movements can also imply you’re stretching the truth, Bradberry says, so be careful to monitor your arm movements. This can be especially important when you’re trying to make sure that you’re coming across as reliable and truthful. In order to do that, “Aim for small, controlled gestures to indicate leadership and confidence, and open gestures—like spreading your arms apart or showing the palms of your hands — to communicate that you have nothing to hide,” Bradberry suggests.
5. Crossing your arms
Crossing your arms in front of your body has become the token signal of defensiveness or that of a closed mind. Bradberry says crossed legs can also be an indicator, but both are physical barriers that suggest you’re not open to what the other person is saying. “Even if you’re smiling or engaged in a pleasant conversation, the other person may get a nagging sense that you’re shutting him or her out,” he explains. Crossed arms can indicate anxiety driven by a lack of trust or an internal sense of discomfort and vulnerability. Certain degrees of crossed arms can mean other subliminal things. For example, arms crossed in a folded position can simply mean that the person is feeling comfortable, especially if there isn’t any visible tension in other parts of the body.
Though these perceptions are widely accepted, there are some experts who disagree with the subliminal meanings. Janine Driver, president of The Body Language Institute, says that crossed arms are more likely to indicate that someone is in a problem-solving frame of mind. “Research shows you’re 30 percent more likely to stay on a difficult task with crossed arms, so during brainstorming, it’s actually a good idea to cross arms,” Driver said during a TODAY show segment. In fact, Driver goes so far to say that the defensiveness interpretation of crossing your arms is really a myth.
Myth or not, Driver said crossed arms are still interpreted in negative ways within the workplace. “It’s not true. It’s a myth, but it’s perceived that way in the office,” she said. In other words, you might not actually be defensive or closed off to the conversation, but be careful not to cross your arms anyway.
Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS