How Body Language Can Make You a Better Manager

Posted by on June 30, 2009 in Business Management [ 1 Comment ]

A firm handshake, a welcoming smile, steady eye contact- all of these are the signs of a confident, competent leader, right? Well, maybe. Turns out, a strong handshake matters less than how you shake hands, smile wattage should depend on personal proximity, and steady eye contact can be read as confrontational in some settings. We’ve all heard that somewhere around 90% of communication is passed along by nonverbal cues- gestures, inflections, and body postures that are usually subconscious. What does your body language say about your management style?

Phrasing and “Energy” Projection

Phrasing is a term used by movement experts to describe when gestures and body movements align with the intentions of spoken words. Think of someone nodding his head up and down, but repeating a verbal “no”- that’s bad phrasing. In movement studies, the more calm, confident, worried, tense, etc. a person feels, the likelier it is these feelings will be projected in his or her body language.

This is good news and bad news for managers- the energy you feel is what’s projected. If you’re frantic, your movements will be tense, quick and agitated, if you’re calm, your gestures serene and soothing. Here are a few examples:


We all know that confident people stand up straight with shoulders back and head held high, but what about in a business setting, where you’re often sitting down, referencing materials, and conversing with multiple parties at once (sometimes via email and phone)? Typically, a head tilted down indicates negativity or disinterest- picking up a report to read it at eye level or just shifting your eye gaze is better.

Likewise, slumped shoulders connote defeat and unhappiness- taking a deep breath to lift your shoulders before a meeting can stave off these negative body movements. Your hands can also have a big impact on how your posture is perceived- displaying the thumbs (watch out for hands in pockets, balled-up fists, etc.), the physically strongest finger, is typically a sign of confident optimism and honesty- traits everyone hopes their manager possesses.


A firm handshake projects “outward” confidence only. Coupled with a palm-down grip (a “dominating” handshake), the person on the receiving end of the handshake may feel like you- quite literally- are trying to get the “upper hand” in the situation. Your grip should be natural, not forced. Don’t lean in too close- anywhere closer than 18 inches is considered the “intimate” zone of personal space.

A one-handed shake is good, but the “shake” should match your overall energy level. If you’re excited and talkative, a vigorous handshake is fine. Make sure it’s one handed when meeting someone for the first time- the two-handed “politician” handshake is often read as disingenuous or arrogant.

Facial Movements

Eye movements are one of the easiest body language cues to notice in business meetings. Traditionally, the eyes look to the right when someone is imagining or creating, and to the left when a person is remembering or recalling events. Looking to the right- even unintentionally- when explaining something can give a false impression of dishonesty. Try to look directly at the person you’re speaking with instead.

Finally, smile often. Yes, it’s cliché, but it’s true, real smiles (the kind using the whole face rather than just the mouth) release endorphins, causing a change in mood- and posture, too. Smiling naturally, and often, is the best thing you can do project the calm, confident management style your employees will respond to.

One thought on “How Body Language Can Make You a Better Manager

  1. avatarEllisa Brenneman

    I have to admit that I’ve love meeting people in business and gauging their body language. It’s not the only way you should evaluate a person you’re interacting with, but it’s always a personal favorite for cataloging first impressions. How do they shake hands? How do they sit when talking? What do they do with uncomfortable silences? Currently there are even televisions devoted to this as an investigation technique! If there’s one piece of advice I can offer budding entrepneurs, it would be to practice that first meeting like it was the World Series of Poker.

    Kindest Thanks,

    Ellisa Brenneman

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