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10 Common Body Language Traps for Women in the Workplace

Carol Kinsey Goman is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker.

A female executive was having problems dealing with her male colleagues. "They like me, but they never take me seriously," she complained. "It's as if they think I'm flirting with them. Which I definitely am not!"

After watching her interact with various men on the senior management team, I saw the problem. She was trying to discuss work-related issues while using a "social gaze."

Here's what I mean . . .

If you create an imaginary triangle on someone’s face, with their eyes as the base and mid-forehead as the apex, you will have mapped out the "look of business." When you keep your gaze in that area, you nonverbally signal a no-nonsense, business-like approach. But when you invert the triangle and move your focus to the area between the eyes and mouth, you turn your gaze into one more appropriate for social encounters. And a social gaze can be misinterpreted as flirtatious—even in a corporate setting.

It’s a small thing, really. But as this woman found out, one small nonverbal signal can change the dynamics of an entire business interaction.

There are two sets of nonverbal signals that are especially important to all professionals. When first introduced to a leader, followers immediately and unconsciously assess him or her for warmth (empathy, likeability, caring) and authority (power, credibility, status). “Warm” leaders connect with staff in a way that makes them want to do a really good job because of that personal connection, affection and respect. But employees also look for leaders who project stability and authority, who make them feel secure, and whom they believe can follow through and achieve results.

Obviously the most appealing leaders are seen to have both qualities, and the least effective leaders are those regarded as uncaring and insecure. Perhaps not so obviously, many of the nonverbal signals for warmth and authority are divided along gender lines. Although I know several leaders of both sexes who do not fit the stereotypes, I’ve also observed that gender differences in body language most often do align with these two groupings. Women are the champions in the warmth and empathy arena, but lose out with power and authority cues—mostly because they fall prey to ten common body language traps.

TRAP #1: Using too many head tilts. Head tilting is a signal that someone is listening and involved—and a particularly feminine gesture. As such, head tilts can be very positive cues, but they are also subconsciously processed as submission signals. (Dogs tilt their heads to expose their necks, as a way to show deference to the dominant animal.) TIP: 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 authority, you should keep your head straight up in a more neutral position.

TRAP #2: Physically condensing. Women tend to condense their bodies, keeping their elbows to their sides, tightly crossing their legs, stacking their materials in small, neat piles and contracting their bodies to take up as little space as possible. High status males do the opposite: They expand into available space and take up room. TIP: Remember that status and authority are nonverbally demonstrated through height and space. So stand tall, pull your shoulders back, widen your stance and hold your head high. And at the next meeting, instead of keeping your belongings in a neat little stack, spread them out and claim your turf!

TRAP #3: Using girlish gestures. Everyone uses pacifying gestures when under stress. They rub their hands together, grab their upper arms and touch their necks. But women are viewed as much less powerful when they pacify with girlish behaviors (twirling hair, playing with jewelry, etc.). TIP: Keep your hands on your lap or on the conference table where they can be seen—and where you will be reminded to keep them still. And when you do use gestures, notice if they are reinforcing your statements. If so, you are probably showing your palms when indicating openness and inclusiveness, “steepling” (finger tips touching, palms separated) when being precise, and turning your hands palms-down when you are absolutely sure of your position.

TRAP #4: Speaking “up.” Women's voices often rise at the ends of sentences as if they're asking a question or asking for approval. TIP: When making a declarative statement, be sure to use the authoritative arc, in which your voice starts on one note, rises in pitch through the sentence and drops back down at the end.

TRAP #5: Smiling excessively. Excessive or inappropriate smiling can be confusing and a credibility robber. This is especially noticeable if you over-smile while discussing a sensitive subject, expressing anger or giving negative feedback. TIP: Employed at the right times (for example, during an initial meeting with a potential business client), smiling can be one of the most powerful and positive nonverbal cues, and especially potent for signaling likeability and friendliness. But when the subject turns serious, you need to look serious.

TRAP #6: Nodding too much. When a man nods, it means he agrees. When a woman nods, it means she agrees—or is listening to, empathizing with or encouraging the speaker to continue. In fact, women tend to nod so much that we’ve been accused of looking like bobble-head dolls. TIP: Constant head nodding can express encouragement and engagement, but not authority and power. To project authority, especially when stating your opinion, keep your head still.

TRAP #7: Waiting your turn. In business negotiations, men take control by talking more than women and interrupting more frequently. TIP: One perspective on the value of speaking up comes from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who—when asked what advice she had for up-and-coming professional women—replied, “Learn to interrupt.”

TRAP #8: Flirtatious behavior. Women gain likeability but lose the competitive advantage in a negotiation when they flirt. That was the consensus of a University of California Berkeley study in which female actors played the roles of sellers of a biotech business. Half were told to project a no-nonsense, business approach. Half were instructed to flirt subtly(using the nonverbal behaviors of smiling, leaning forward suggestively, tossing their hair, etc.). The outcome of the Berkeley study was that the “buyers” offered the flirts, dubbed “likeable losers”, 20 percent less on average than what they offered the more straitlaced sellers. TIP: In business, it’s better to come across as competent and professional.

TRAP #9: Being emotionally over-expressive. While a certain amount of movement and animation adds passion and meaning to a message, women who visibly express their emotions with hand gestures that rise above their shoulders can quickly overwhelm an audience (especially if that audience is composed primarily of males). TIP: To engage and motivate people, an emotional presentation can be very effective. But in situations where you want to maximize your authority, you’ll need to minimize your movements and keep your gestures about waist high. When you appear calm and contained, you look more powerful.

TRAP #10: Having a delicate handshake. Even more than their male counterparts, women with a weak handshake are judged to be passive and less confident. TIP: Take the time to cultivate your "professional shake.” Keep your body squared off to the other person, facing him or her fully. Make sure you have palm-to-palm contact and that the web of your hand (the skin between your thumb and first finger) touches the web of the other person's. Look your partner in the eyes, smile—this is one place where a smile is a business asset—and start to speak: “So good to meet you . . .” or whatever. Most of all, remember to shake hands firmly.

Of course, increased awareness of how you stand, gesture, shake hands and employ other nonverbal signals is only half of the equation. The other half is the ability to accurately read the body language of others. And it is here where women leaders really have the advantage. Women are more attuned to relationship dynamics and more skilled at picking up nonverbal cues. It’s a skill that gives them insights that men sometimes miss about what is really going on in a meeting or during a negotiation.

This piece is based on research from Carol Kinsey Goman’s latest book, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead, published in April 2011 by Jossey-Bass. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Ph.D., is an executive coach, consultant and international keynote speaker, as well as an expert contributor to The Washington Post’s On Leadership panel.