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Body Language And How it Impacts Employee Engagement

Posted by Insightlink on 10/14/16

Understanding body language can enhance communication with your employees

Managers who understand the basic rules of body language have a unique ability to influence employee engagement by their ability to use non-verbal messages to know their employee’s true feelings. U.S. anthropologist and body language expert Ray Birdwhistell discovered decades ago that 95 percent of communication happens in our subconscious minds and then it is expressed through our body language. Taken one step further, Linda Talley, a current expert in body language, says that a person can say something which may not be true but their body language will always tell the truth.

Our bodies always tell the truth no matter what we say.

By being knowledgeable about body language and what the signs mean a manager can begin to observe and respond to employee’s behavior in informed ways. Not only can awareness make it easier for managers to get a better read on their employees, it can also help managers be more aware of how they are coming across to their employees. For example, if you call your team together for a meeting because you have bad news to share you might frame the conversation with positive words and a smile hoping to minimize the impact but your body language could warning everyone without you even realizing it.

Research also shows that within two minutes we form our opinions about them and that includes what we think of their character, honesty, trustworthiness, personality, level of education, degree of intelligence and temperament. And, that once we have this opinion it is very resistant to change. We humans all share a powerful tendency to be closed-minded and we all subconsciously distort incoming information so that it supports our initial beliefs which is further evidence of how powerful our subconscious minds are.

Many of us wear masks at work to project an image of being confident, happy and secure but the reality is, our body language often gives us away. By being aware we also have the ability to harness our bodies and use our body language to reinforce openness, communication and foster trust and positive connection. Imagine being able to look past what people say to see what they are really thinking about a new idea just by looking at their hands and arms.

To ensure you are connecting with your employees in the most positive way and giving yourself the greatest opportunity to understand them and make them feel valued and respected, don’t rely on what they say with words. Michael Wolfe, author of Body Language, It’s Not What You Say But How You Say  explains what many of our gestures mean as does expert Linda Talley who also interprets what our bodies are really saying to help us interpret our own body language and recognize gestures in others.

We encourage you to use this list to help you improve your relationships, increase morale, trust and loyalty and get your team on board.

Smile: A genuine smile can be seen around the eyes by the presence of crow’s feet. That is the true measure of how sincerely happy a person is. Without the crow’s feet the smile is fake. When you show your teeth and have wide open eyes you convey you are truthful, honest and have nothing to hide.

Crossed arms: This is a universal gesture that creates a barrier between two people and suggests they either don’t like you or whatever is being discussed.

Crossed arms with thumbs sticking out: This person has a negative attitude to what you are saying and they feel superior, as the thumbs sticking out show. This person might not agree with you and they are not planning to give up fighting against you. If one hand is completely tucked under the armpit while the other has fingers tucked under with the thumb sticking out, this person is saying I am not revealing anything to you and you can’t make me. Famous people like former President Bill Clinton crossed his arms this way when he was questioned by the media about topics that upset him.
If the person tucks their thumbs so only their fingers are exposed they are not buying into anything you are saying and is going to resist all your ideas, suggestions or directives.

Double arm grip: This is considered even more negative than just crossing of the arms. In this position the person is not only unhappy they also don’t like what is being presented to them. They are letting you know they are unhappy, feel insecure and are not buying into whatever it is you are telling them.

Clenched fists/crossed arms: This gesture reveals a hostile attitude and in this case a manager must be extra careful with the words they choose and their own body language. In these instances, too much eye contact can worsen the situation. Instead remain calm and positive and be careful not to lean in too close so that the other person does not feel their space is being invaded.

Shaking hands: Touching, shaking hands and making eye contact are all forms of bonding. It matters though how you shake hands. A palm down handshake has the effect of pushing down the other person’s hand which can make them feel inferior and powerless. Always make sure your hand is parallel to the other person’s hand. This creates the feeling of equality.

In pockets: indicate unwillingness, mistrust and reluctance.

On hips: Is a sign of readiness often observed in productive people.

Steepling: When palms face each other with the fingertips touching is a display of confidence and self-assurance. This is a real show of power so it should be used carefully.

Clasping, squeezing hands: this is a self-pacifying gesture that lets you know the other person is nervous or fearful. When the fingers are interwoven it lets you now the person is thinking things are going really bad.

Clenched fists: Most often signifies discomfort and the person is trying to harden themselves.

Hand behind back: While it shows confidence it has the backward effect of making other people feel they are being looked at. They feel naked.

How should you respond to any of these negative body language signs?

The goal is to get the person to uncross their arms and lean forward. When this happens their face will soften and you will know if their hands are clasped on the table in front of him or resting on the table palms up that your ideas have been accepted and that you have made a positive connection.

To move from negative to positive simply lean towards the employee with your palms facing up or toward each other. These two movements combine to show that you want the other person’s involvement and their participation.

Communication is one of the pillars of employee engagement and job satisfaction because if things are not being communicated well it affects people every single day. Using and being able to interpret body language gives managers added insight into understanding the true feelings of their employees and also gives them skills for communicating in more positive ways with their teams.

Insightlink is an employee research company that specializes in improving employee engagement, job satisfaction and helping organizations reduce turnover. Please visit our website at, write to us at or call Lynn Gore at 802-806-8095 ext. 705 for more information.


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