Ten Body-Language Mistakes Women Leaders Make
by Carol Kinsey Goman
What body-language cues do followers look for in leaders? Two sets—warmth (empathy, likeability, caring) and authority (power, credibility, status). Although I know several men and several women leaders who do not fit the gender stereotypes, I’ve also observed that gender differences in body language most often do align with these two sets. Women are the champions in the warmth and empathy arena, but they lose out in terms of power and authority cues.
All leaders are judged by their body language. If a woman wants to be perceived as powerful, credible, and confident, she has to be aware of the nonverbal signals she’s sending. I’ve seen women unknowingly employ a number of behaviors that reduce their authority by denoting vulnerability or submission.
Here are 10 body-language mistakes that women leaders commonly make.
1. Using too many head tilts. Head tilting is a signal that someone is listening and involved—and a particularly feminine gesture. Head tilts can be very positive cues, but they are also subconsciously processed as submission signals. Women who want to project power and authority should keep their heads straight up in a more neutral position.
2. Physically condensing. One nonverbal way of demonstrating status in a business meeting is taking up physical room. Most women (and lower-status, less-confident men) tend to pull in their bodies and minimize their size by, for example, crossing their arms and legs, whereas high-status men expand and take up space by, for example, extending their arms across the backs of chairs adjacent to theirs and splaying materials across the table. So if you’re a woman leader, at your next meeting, spread out your body and your belongings and claim your turf.
3. Acting girlish. Everyone uses pacifying gestures when under stress. They rub their hands together, grab their upper arms, and touch their necks. But women are viewed as much less powerful when they pacify with girlish behaviors such as twirling hair, playing with jewelry, or nibbling at a fingernail.
4. Smiling excessively. While smiling can be a powerful and positive nonverbal cue—especially for signaling likeability and friendliness—women should be aware that excessive or inappropriate smiling can also be confusing and a credibility robber. This is especially true if a woman smiles while discussing a serious subject, expressing anger, or giving negative feedback.
5. Nodding too much. When a man nods, the nod is generally taken to mean that he agrees. When a woman nods, it’s generally taken either to mean that she agrees—or to mean that she is listening to, empathizing with, or encouraging the speaker to continue. Constant head nodding can express encouragement and engagement, but not authority and power. Excessive head nodding can make females look like bobblehead dolls.
6. Speaking “up.” Women’s voices often rise at the ends of sentences, as if they’re asking a question or asking for approval. When stating an opinion, women should be sure to use the authoritative arc, in which the voice starts on one note, rises in pitch through the sentence, and drops back down at the end.
7. Waiting their turn. In negotiations, men talk more than women and interrupt more frequently. One perspective on the value of speaking up comes from former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who—when asked what advice she had for up-and-coming professional women—replied, “Learn to interrupt.”
8. Being overly expressive. A certain amount of movement and animation adds passion and meaning to a message, but women who express the entire spectrum of emotions often overwhelm their audience (especially if the audience is primarily men). So in situations where a woman wants to maximize her authority, it’s important for her to minimize her movements. When you appear calm and contained, you look more powerful.
9. Using a delicate handshake. A woman with a weak handshake is judged to be passive and less confident. It’s worth devoting time to cultivating a professional shake. This means keeping your body squared off to the other person—facing him or her fully. A woman needs to make sure that she has palm-to-palm contact and that the web of her hand (the skin between the thumb and first finger) touches the web of the other person’s. And, most of all, women need to remember to shake hands firmly.
10. Flirting. Women gain likeability but lose the competitive advantage in a negotiation when they flirt. In a U.C.-Berkeley study, female actors played the roles of sellers of a biotech business. Half were told to project a no-nonsense, business approach. Half were instructed to flirt (using the nonverbal behaviors of smiling, leaning forward suggestively, tossing their hair, and so on)—but to do so subtly.
The outcome was that the “buyers” offered the flirts (dubbed “likeable losers”) 20 percent less, on average, than what they offered the more businesslike sellers.
Carol Kinsey Goman, an international keynote speaker, executive coach, and management consultant, is the author of The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. Her latest book, The Silent Language of Leaders, will be published by Jossey-Bass in spring 2011. To learn more, call 510/526-1727; email CGoman@CKG.com; or visit CKG.com and NonverbalAdvantage.com.