You met deadlines and put in extra hours at work—yet you still haven’t landed that coveted promotion or cultivated meaningful connections with coworkers. Could it be your body language that’s holding you back?
When it comes to communication, “you might be saying one or two words, but giving off thousands of nonverbal cues,” says body language expert and author Patti Wood. These nonverbal cues, which include everything from your posture to your expression, are crucial to any interaction—and it’s especially important to project the correct cues at work, she says.
Even with so much at stake, experts say we’re often completely unaware of a whole host of body language faux pas we’re committing in the workplace. Here are some common ones—and how to correct them:
Bad posture or slouching
It’s easy to lapse into less-than-perfect posture after long hours at your desk, but slouching “conveys you’re a slob [or] not as competent” as those who sit straight, says Dr. Lillian Glass, a body language expert and communications consultant.
Even if you find it more comfortable, “other people read that as not positive, not energetic, not caring,” Wood adds.
As for hunching over computer screens and phones, not only are ‘tech neck’ and poor posture bad for your physical and emotional health, but Wood says this body language also conveys that you are protective, guarded or inattentive.
If you find yourself slipping into bad posture, Glass tells her clients to move their buttocks to the posterior of their chair, with their backs remaining upright against the chair’s rear, without sitting too stiffly.
Whether you’re twirling a lock of hair, bouncing your knee or playing with objects on the table, experts say there’s likely no mannerism quite as distracting as fidgeting. Oftentimes, nerves drive these behaviors, Glass says.
But fidgeting too much in a meeting will cause colleagues to think, “‘why isn’t she paying attention, why isn’t she tuned in?’” says Wood.
“You don’t want to do things that distract, you want to do things that entice,” explains Joe Navarro, a 25-year FBI veteran who now writes about and lectures widely on non-verbal communication. In a meeting or a conversation, Navarro suggests channeling your energy away from foot-tapping, nose-rubbing or thumb-twirling, and focusing instead on making eye contact, tilting your head and keeping your hands visible. These small tweaks to your demeanor will make you look more attentive, he says.
Holding a tense expression on your face
You’re squinting at your computer screen when your boss stops by to chat. You may not realize it, but that look of deep concentration—eyes narrowed, brows furrowed—can come across as frustration or anger when you look up from your device, Glass says.
To make the transition smoother, Wood tells clients to imagine going over a threshold when a coworker approaches them in the midst of concentrating. “Purposely do the exact opposite,” she says, consciously opening your palms, smiling and relaxing your face.
And if you can’t pivot into a more relaxed expression because you’re concentrating so intensely, Glass suggests finding a private place to work.
Being too casual
The modern workplace can be quite casual—from lax dress codes to office cultures that encourage socializing.
But assuming that clothing and grooming doesn’t matter is a huge mistake, according to Navarro. “There’s a false assumption that if we dress down, we’ll be treated and respected the same,” he says, or exude the same level of confidence as when you’re well-put together.
That doesn’t mean you should opt to wear a suit when others are sporting jeans. “You can have really nice casual clothes,” he says, but dirty or ill-fitting attire is inappropriate no matter how casual your office culture is.
And the ramifications of being too casual extend to how you carry yourself in the workplace, says Wood. She’s seen many people walk down the hall in a corporate environment “like they’re in their house, in their PJs.” Despite the increase in casual workplace atmospheres, “we’ve forgotten that our brain still reads people in very much the same way,” Wood says.
Looking down or not making eye contact
Even in a world dominated by smartphones, eye contact matters. Not meeting someone’s eye causes others around you to think, “‘I don’t know how to engage with this person’ or ‘I’m too busy to engage with this person,’” Wood explains.
Holding your chin down or staring at the floor makes you appear insecure, sad and displays a lack of confidence, according to Glass.
If your phone is causing you to look down or avoid eye contact, fight the urge to check it constantly in someone else’s presence, Navarro says. “The argument ‘well, everyone does it,’” doesn’t make it okay, he says. “People who don’t value you do it.”
And if you’re passing someone in a common area in the office, Wood suggests making that all-important eye contact, slightly raising your eyebrows and smiling. “It makes the other person feel safe and signals you’re their friend,” she says.
Crossing your arms
Wood also says people should look out for what she calls “closed” cues, such as crossing your arms over your chest, turning your torso away from someone while he or she is speaking, or placing objects between you and the person you’re speaking to. Even if your crossed legs or arms have nothing to do with the person who is presenting in a meeting, it sends off signals that “you’re only partially engaged or you’re pretending to be engaged,” she says. “When someone’s windows are closed we don’t feel as comfortable in an interaction.”
The fix? Wood says to make sure your body is oriented toward the person you’re interacting with. For example, don’t have your face turned toward a coworker while the rest of your body is aligned with the exit.
Standing too close to people
Most people need a lot more personal space than you might think, according to Navarro. Not only does standing too close to people make them uncomfortable, he says, but it also diminishes your ability to make a good impression or convey your point.
Personal space preferences vary from person to person—and even among different cultures. So, how do you determine how close you should stand to someone? “Lean forward and shake hands, then take a step back so you’re about four feet away,” Navarro says. “If the person is comfortable, they’ll stay there,” and if they want to be closer, “they will step forward or angle themselves toward you.”
And if you’re not sure of other body language boundaries you may be crossing, ask friends or trusted colleagues for feedback, Navarro suggests. Another good strategy is to identify people you admire—whether in your workplace or famous leaders—who carry themselves well, and take note of their habits. Above all, “life is theater,” says Navarro, and being aware of how you present yourself can be vital to getting ahead at work.
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