Overcoming workplace bias and mastering the art of nonverbal communication

Carol Kinsey Goman: Women caught in the “Double-Bind” paradoxHe’s the boss. You’ve become bossy. He’s assertive and confident. You’re seen as aggressive and domineering. He’s successful and liked. You were better liked before you got promoted.

Enter the Double-Bind paradox, which states that as males rise in rank and status at work, they retain (and often increase) their perceived likeability – so they can be both powerful and likeable. Women, on the other hand, are more likeable when their behaviour conforms to the stereotypes we hold of them as nurturing, empathetic, and collaborative.

Catalyst, an organization that studies women in leadership, calls this the “dammed if you do, doomed if you don’t” dilemma. When women project status and authority in order to advance in the business world, the more powerful they appear and the less they are liked.

A frequently cited Stanford Graduate School of Business study, the Heidi/Howard case, backs this up. When the same highly assertive and successful leader is described to grad students (of both genders), that person is seen as far more appealing when given a male name instead of a female one.

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But another – much more encouraging study from Stanford – found that businesswomen who are assertive and confident but who can turn these traits on and off depending on the social circumstances get more promotions than either other females or males in their organizations.

And here’s where body language can help.

In the workplace, your nonverbal signals are continuously and unconsciously being assessed for warmth (empathy, likeability, caring) and authority (power, credibility, status). Knowing how specific body language cues are most likely to be perceived by others can be the first step in successfully transitioning from one impression to another.

Sometimes it’s as simple as shifting the tilt of your head. Tilting your head to one side signals that you are listening and involved. As such, head tilts can be very empathetic and warm. But they are also subconsciously processed as submission signals. (Dogs tilt their heads to expose their necks to show deference to the dominant animal.)

Use head tilts when you want to demonstrate your concern for and interest in members of your team or when you want to encourage people to expand on what they are saying. But when you need to project power and confidence, keep your head straight up in a more neutral (and authoritative) position.

Hand gestures also say a lot: Warmth and candour are displayed by open arm gestures and by rotating your palms up at about a 45-degree angle.

Projecting status and certainty, however, is achieved by using controlled gestures between your waist and your shoulders, “steepling” (touching your fingertips together while your palms are separated) or rotating your hands palms-down. All of these gestures indicate that you are absolutely sure of your position.

Of course, posture signals also send their own messages.

I invite you to try this: Sit in a chair with your legs crossed, bring your elbows into your waist, clasp your hands together and place them on your lap while slightly rounding your shoulders. Now say, “I am confident and powerful.”

Do you know that most people would evaluate that posture as submissive and powerless – regardless of the words spoken? Would it surprise you to know that some version of this posture is the way most of us women sit?

Status and authority are nonverbally demonstrated through claiming height and space. When you want to project confidence, remember to sit tall, pull your shoulders back, bring your elbows away from your body, place your hands on the table and uncross your legs, placing your feet solidly on the floor. If standing, widen your stance so your feet are about hip distance apart. By the way: If you are seated around a conference table, stand when you speak, and you’ll gain instant status by becoming – for the moment – the tallest person in the room.

On the other hand, when you want to display empathy, you’d be wise to replace status cues with warmer ones – sitting so that you are the same height as everyone else, leaning forward, nodding your head in encouragement, smiling, pointing your torso and feet toward whoever is speaking and giving that person your full attention.

Women who want to advance in their organizations can beat the Double-Bind Paradox and gain a nonverbal advantage by knowing when and how to display body language signals of competence and power and when to switch signals to be perceived as warm, empathetic and inclusive.

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead.

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