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Ten Things Every Manager Should Know About Nonverbal Behavior

by Dana R. Carney

Ten Things Every Manager Should Know About Nonverbal Behavior
Whether they're aware of it or not, managers influence the people they work with every day through posture, facial expressions, and other cues.

Managers influence the people they work with every day - not only through their words and decisions, but also through their nonverbal behaviors. Whether they’re aware of it or not, their posture, facial expressions, and reactions can all serve to build trust and enhance working relationships when handled well. But the same nonverbal cues can also undermine trust and cause problems in the long run when handled poorly.


In 1960, University of North Dakota psychologist Robert Rosenthal conducted a landmark research study on the role of expectations on performance. It was discovered that when rats in a maze were treated more kindly and encouragingly by their examiners, they were able to find solutions more quickly and remember them longer.

Building on this insight, Rosenthal was curious to see whether an examiner’s biases could influence the performance of a group of rats at the same skill level. When examiners were told beforehand that an assigned rat was particularly bright and could solve mazes quickly, they were more inclined to treat the rat encouragingly. When examiners were told that a rat was dull and had little ability, they held low expectations and treated the rat worse. Despite the fact that there was no difference between the rats at first, the “maze bright” and “maze dull” rats soon began to diverge significantly in their performance. The examiners’ expectations had a direct influence on performance.

This finding was tested again, this time on schoolchildren. It was found that “bright” students were treated differently by their teachers, performed better in school, raised their hands more often, and demonstrated an increase in IQ of 27 points after a year of study, when compared to their peers. The results of Rosenthal’s research had a profound effect on the study of psychology, popularizing the concept of “expectancy effects” and the idea of the “self-fulfilling prophesy.”

Ten Things Managers Should Know about Nonverbal Behavior

As Rosenthal demonstrated, unconscious behaviors can have a significant effect on others - how they feel about themselves, how they perform, and whether or not they feel validated and included.

  1. Avoiding Micro-Aggressions
    Scowls, eye rolls, and finger-pointing are obvious negative behaviors. But the absence of positive behavior is also a micro-aggression. Smiling, looking at others, and speaking with them all signal “I like working with you,” and avoiding them can send a negative message.

  2. Liking and Valuing Others
    It’s important for managers to engage with others in a way that is relatable and collaborative. One way is through “synchrony” - simultaneous action of two or more people at once. This could be as simple as eating lunch at the same time. Mimicry is similar. People who are close have a natural tendency to mimic: if someone moves closer to the table, another will follow suit shortly after. Finally, managers should prioritize their listening and conversational turn-taking skills.

  3. Building Trust and Consensus
    Signaling that you trust and can be trusted by others is easy. Managers should express an open body posture and look at people while they are speaking. Moreover, to make sure everyone feels included, managers should also make eye contact with those who have not spoken yet to give them an opportunity to contribute.

  4. Listening
    Many people struggle with feeling unheard at work. As in the above rules, it is important for managers to truly focus on others while they are speaking: make eye contact and be sure not to look at a computer or phone screen.

  5. Avoiding Resting “Cranky” Face
    Has anyone ever seemed nervous around you? Do people think you disapprove of them even when you don’t? Many of us can look judgmental or upset as we listen to others. Pay attention to your eyes: make sure you aren’t unconsciously squinting or glaring. By placing your thumb and forefinger on your chin, others’ perception of your furrowed brow can be converted from a face of judgment to a face of engagement.

  6. Power
    Conveying power through nonverbal behavior is simple. The real question is whether it is appropriate to express power in a given situation. Managers should assess whether the time is right to demonstrate a more authoritatize tone, and then seek to use an upright, expansive posture and speak for longer. Be careful, though: long speaking time can also be associated with those who struggle with self-regulation. It is important that you have something legitimate to say.

  7. Status (Respect and Admiration of Others)
    Like power, conveying status through nonverbal behavior is easy to do - but it’s important to note the difference between power and status. Power is defined as access to and control over people and resources. By contrast, status is defined as the respect and admiration of others. The same nonverbal cues that can indicate power should be used in accordance with an individual’s management style - pick those that work best for you. In addition, there are two specific behaviors that convey status. First - the use of deliberate, clear gestures while speaking. And second - the ability to laugh and make others laugh.

  8. Intelligence
    As a manager you want to be able to detect and promote intelligence, in addition to conveying intelligence which will increase others’ perception of your competence. Behaviors that convey intelligence involve engagement. When we appear engaged by what others are doing or saying, it tends to reflect our intelligence and peoples’ perception of our competence. Affirmative paralinguistic utterances (such as “mm-hm” and “yes”) can accordingly signal intelligence.

  9. Detecting Deception in Strategic and Ordinary Operations
    Detecting deception is difficult. On average, managers are only slightly better than chance unless they have had specific training. Open and honest communication is important, so lies - even minor ones - can damage culture and productivity. When a person lies about something inconsequential, they experience little to no fear of consequence, inner-conflict, or guilt. As such, the lie is not revealed through body language. However, most of the time people feel at least a little inner-conflict when we say something that isn’t true. Look out for changes in baseline behavior (like shifting uncomfortably) or seemingly “fake” facial expressions (like fake smiles) that don’t seem to correspond to the context.

  10. Using the Wisdom of the Crowd
    Making sense of others’ thoughts, feelings, and intentions can take up quite a bit of mental bandwidth. But as you practice, your judgments will improve. Additionally, it can help to distribute the burden of judgment to a small group; asking a trusted group of advisors and averaging their impressions of a situation or another person can help you tap the “wisdom of the crowd” to achieve a more accurate overall assessment.


Nonverbal behavior can seem like a secret language. So much of what managers do on a day-to-day basis has a profound impact on others - managers might not even recognize the extent to which their nonverbal behaviors affect the team as a whole. But just because the communication is mostly unconscious does not mean that these choices cannot be made deliberately. Moreover, managers must deliberately employ these nonverbal tools to become more effective communicators.

To find out more, please read the full article in California Management Review, Volume 63 Issue 2.


California Management Review

Berkeley-Haas's Premier Management Journal

Published at Berkeley Haas for more than sixty years, California Management Review seeks to share knowledge that challenges convention and shows a better way of doing business.

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