Soft skills: 10 body language tips for leaders

Body language matters when leaders communicate – even one-on-one. Learn how to make your nonverbal communication work for you, not against you
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With more than 50 million views, Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on power poses offers an eye-opening example of the power of soft skills. In it, as well as in her follow-up book on body-mind effects, Cuddy talks about how small tweaks in body language can have a big impact on how people view others – and how they view themselves.

Unfortunately, leaders can’t master the art of nonverbal communication with a two-minute Wonder Woman pose alone. Like other soft skills, body language improvement takes continual practice.

Body language is critical – but is probably the soft skill that receives the least amount of attention.

“Body language is one of the most important ways that we communicate with others, yet it is probably the skill that receives the least amount of attention by individuals,” says Anne Baum, author of Small Mistakes, Big Consequences: Develop Your Soft Skills to Help You Succeed. “It is critically important to consider your body language as it sends nonverbal cues that can undermine the words that are being said.”

Leaders have even more incentive to work on this skill, says Leila Bulling Towne, executive coach at The Bulling Towne Group, LLC. “As your title gets bigger, you are usually physically more removed from people and the general workings of the company or office,” she explains. “You might be in a suite of offices or on a specific floor. People see you less. When your team, or those reporting into your function, do see you, how you move your hands and body and what you do with your eyes (or not) makes a bigger impact than you realize. Since they don’t observe you as often, when they do, they scrutinize your words and actions.” 

[ How do your people skills measure up? Read our related article, 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

We asked leaders, executive coaches, and body language pros for practical tips and advice. Read on to learn how to make your nonverbal communication work for you – not against you. We’ll close with how to evaluate your own body language.

1. Decide what you want to convey

Edward Schiappa, professor of comparative media studies at MIT and lead instructor of MIT Professional Education’s upcoming Persuasive Communications Bootcamp: “Almost everything we do – how we walk, talk, gesture, look at people, shake hands, sit down, arrange our office, dress, wear our hair, etc. – communicates something about who we are. So the first crucial step for leaders to consider is: Who is the ‘I’ that I present to my peers and teams? Am I conveying the qualities that I want to convey?

“Think about how we communicate trustworthiness: Good eye contact, showing respect and trust of one’s peers or team members, demonstrating support in conversation non-verbally. It matters literally if you lean forward or lean back in a chair – one conveys interest and involvement, one begins to imply distance. So how you physically comport yourself can make an enormous difference. In short, the mistake to avoid is adopting body language that is out of sync with behavior that defines the leader you want to be.”

2. Stay authentic

Elizabeth Gilbert, researcher, “There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, match your non-verbal communication to both your audience and yourself. Communication is a social experience, so when working on your body language, consider whom you are speaking with and what you want to convey. For example, if you want to be authoritative, use expansive body language (think ‘manspreading’) and big gestures. If you want to be friendly and put others at ease, consider using subtler gestures and taking up less physical space.

“At the same time, your non-verbal communication should feel comfortable to you. This is not to say you can’t improve your non-verbal communication – you can and should practice new habits like physically leaning in, power posing, using matching hand gestures, etc. However, if you constantly pretend to be a loud, super-expressive extrovert when you’re really a more reserved introvert (or vice versa), this can be bad for your well-being. It may also come across as unauthentic. So consider how to match your non-verbal behavior to your true self.”

3. Find balance between open and closed body language

A power pose can make you a confident presenter, but in certain circumstances, it can be seen as arrogance.

Kyle M.K., leadership consultant and author of The Economics of Emotion: “Managers can go too far on either side of the spectrum. They can be too open and eager with their body language, which often makes teams and employees uncomfortable. For instance, a power pose can make leaders more confident presenters, but in certain circumstances (such as when you’re the most influential person in the room), it can be seen as arrogance.

“Or they can be too closed off, which will lead team members to believe their manager doesn't care. Leaders who keep their head down are often assumed to be meek or doubtful, so any decision they make would make the team feel unsure. The right thing to do here is to be relaxed and conscious of what message you're sending with your body language.”

4. Show that you are listening

Jeffrey Davis, executive speech coach, Speak Clear Communications: “It’s important for executives to convey to co-workers that they are in the moment and listening. Simple things help: Sit up, keep eye contact, use open movements while gesturing, and keep your fingertips lightly touching while resting your hands. Listening, relating, connecting emotionally – these are the values to express with your non-verbal communication. I would stay away from any gesture or movement that contradicts these values, such as crossed arms or slouchy spinal alignment.”

5. Eye contact builds trust

Anne Baum, author of Small Mistakes, Big Consequences: Develop Your Soft Skills to Help You Succeed: “Eye contact is incredibly important as a leader. Looking your team members directly in the eye and listening to hear (not just to answer) builds trust between a leader and their team members. When a leader is looking around and not focusing on the team, the leader seems distracted or insincere. This destroys trust, and it doesn’t matter what words are being said.”

6. Keep your hands open 

Great leaders are open to ideas and are receptive to the people around them.

Erica B. McCurdy, certified master coach and strategy consultant, McCurdy Strategy Group“Keep your hands open. Surprisingly, closing your fists or clenching your hands not only increases the tension in your body, but also the tension in the way you present yourself to others. Great leaders are open to ideas and are receptive to the people around them. You cannot stay open if your body and mind are closed off. Opening your hands is a physical way of reminding yourself to stay open-minded in your meetings, presentations, and negotiations.

“Also, keep your hands off your face. While this advice shouldn’t have to be told to anyone past elementary school, you’d be surprised how often people forget to keep their hands off their faces during meetings. The element of disgust is super powerful – so powerful that it can override almost any other feeling that takes place in a meeting. So keep your hands down and your head up.”

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.