NOW that face-to-face meetings are back, we need to revisit our dictionary of body language. These tell-tale physical signals may have been quietly forgotten after two years of virtual meetings that have their own protocol. (Raise the virtual hand for questions.)
It’s back to the round table and watching out for body movements from raised eyebrows to distended nostrils, and, yes, foot-tapping — known as under-the-table communications.
In his book Focus, published in 2013, Daniel Goleman (of Emotional Intelligence) wrote on the importance of “social sensitivity” which entails reading others, and understanding what they are communicating without words. A rather long interrogation on an irrelevant issue, like Argentinian bonds, can elicit a suppressed yawn from the Chair or an impatient turning of the wrist to check the time. Cluelessness to these signals can be disastrous.
Body language is part of our culture and reading it well is a necessary skill for the corporate gamesman.
Facial expressions can be unspoken warnings. A distracted look indicates more pressing matters than the approval of a vacation leave. (So, you’re off to Sydney?) The “worried look” is hard to conceal. There may be no mention of unmet targets deserving attention that is being diverted to a visit to the Sydney Opera House. (This is not the time to take a break.)
The “avoidance game” is trackable. When X moves to the right, does Y discreetly move to the left? Here, crowds are used as screens the same way a three-point shooter uses blockers to get an open look. And an overt plea to the “avoider” (Is something wrong?) only makes things worse — I’m just going to the buffet table.
Cancelled meetings are also hints of a fall from grace. When regularly scheduled meetings are scrapped, it only means unscheduled ones have taken their place, often involving a smaller group.
Subsets of the cancelled meetings for the higher-ups involve sessions outside the office, or the country. (You didn’t get a business class ticket for Wednesday?) The unwritten rule on unscheduled meetings states: The more inconvenient the time and place for a meeting called by a superior, the higher the probability of bad news for the person not summoned.
Not receiving an invitation for corporate events, especially those that do not require attendance checks, indicate removal from a list. While these proceedings are not formally classified as meetings, they too have an invitation list which indicates who’s up or down. They may be terrace cocktails or even out-of-town sorties by the beach though swimming is not required.
Not being invited to a video tribute session can only mean that you are the subject of the farewell messages — he was an avuncular presence whom we tried to ignore.
Julius Caesar, the clueless victim of a palace coup, had all the warnings from people whispering in small groups and even a soothsayer impeding his progress to the forum with a clear warning to beware the ides of March. The protestation of Caesar that the ides of March have come is met by the soothsayer with a cheeky — “Aye, but not yet gone.” You know what happened next… or maybe you don’t.
Still, there is the danger of reading too much between the lines so that even the most innocent gestures are given ominous meanings. What did he mean by “have a nice day” with a raised eyebrow, just the left? Was there a touch of irony in his voice when he greeted me in the elevator?
Words, after all, have their literal meanings and thinking too much of their perhaps unintended connotation leads to paranoia. Overreaction can be unproductive. What can be worse than being dismissed as “too insecure”? (Doesn’t he have enough to do than read eyebrow movements?)
Body language, just like any form of communication, is not always accurate. The boss may just be playing the same divide-and-conquer games with gazes at the ceiling when someone is making a presentation on corporate transformation. Maybe he’s just checking for flies in the ceiling.
Even in politics, physical signals are becoming significant. Crowds in a rally are indications of support and even passion, especially when presented from an aerial view showing a sea of pink.
For sure, a crowd of almost yawning and seated followers being warmed up by an equally lukewarm cheerleader can only invite apathy. Cancelled meetings and an absence from public discussion are no help… except for those who need to relax for quite a long time.
Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda