Body Language Part 2 - In the Workplace

Posted by: Jo Banks

Date: 01-01-0001

How to spot the ‘Top Dog’ (or who thinks they are) in your office...

It’s unbelievably easy to spot the person  who is, thinks he is or wants to be ‘the boss’ in a work situation and it's usually a man.  I’m not being sexist here, I’m just saying it like it is – male and female body language is usually quite different in the same situations. 'Boss' behaviour is most noticeable in a meeting situation. When I’m in meetings, this is the body language that I always look out for and is the one that I find the most interesting.

I’m going to talk about 3 different scenarios here, however, they relate to the same body language/ posture:

Situation 1 – A meeting/group with a leader

The designated 'leader' of the meeting (usually the most senior person – the person who is perceived to be the highest ranking or the ‘Chair’ of the meeting) will sometimes adopt the ‘hands behind the head’ pose (which is usually accompanied by a ‘crotch display’ if it’s a man ie one ankle over the other knee exposing the genital area) they will also lean back in their chair or even swing back on two chair legs in order to assert their authority on the rest of the group or to leave them in no doubt who’s in charge.

What is often most fascinating (apart the fact that people subconsciously feel the need to non-verbally shout “I’M IN CONTROL HERE ... I’M THE BOSS ... I KNOW MORE THAN YOU DO” because that’s what this pose suggests) is when someone else in the group mimics the pose, thereby trying to assert their authority over the ‘leader’.

This is most interesting where the other person adopting the pose is junior to the ‘group leader’. It’s actually quite a threatening/confrontational posture in this situation. I’m always intrigued to see how long each person will hold the pose, as the one that holds it the longest is perceived to be the winner. In observations I’ve made, that tends to be the 'real' leader without fail and quite soon after I’ll sometimes see the relationship between the leader and the ‘challenger’ deteriorate afterwards.

Situation 2 – A meeting/group without a leader

A meeting of peers where there is no obvious leader. In this situation, there will usually be a battle of at least two people to become the leader. Again one will adopt the ‘hands behind the head’ pose and at least one other will do the same. They will both stay in this pose until one backs down – the other will perceive that they’ve won the right to be the leader of the group or the most senior person/person with the most knowledge.

Now I must point out here, that most if not all of this is done subconsciously and people honestly don’t know that they’re doing it, which makes it all the more interesting for me. Incidentally, this display is very rarely shown by women, like I said earlier, however, I have seen women do it when they are vying for position (usually with a man). I’ve never observed two women striking this pose particular pose in the same meeting (and I’ve been in hundreds if not thousands of meetings over the years).

Scenario 3 - One a one to one basis

I once had a meeting with a prospective client (a senior manager of a large corporation) who positioned himself like that in front of me in our 1:2:1 meeting.  What he was saying with his body language was that he was better than me and it was almost like him saying, "Go on little girl, tell me what you've got" It felt quite patronising and could have been  intimidating had I not found it so amusing!  I found his display actually quite disturbing and disrespectful and decided not to do business with that company on the back of that one meeting.  It may have cost my business not to, however, I'd rather work with people who are respectful.


What your body language says about you...

Arms crossed

Most of us don’t need to be told what this means ... it often indicates defensiveness. People tend to do this when they’re feeling unsure, unhappy or negative and we want to keep other people at bay. I often notice this stance on my very first session with a 1:2:1 client or at the beginning of a training session when people feel unsure of what’s happening and what's going to be expected of them and are feeling vulnerable. 

There is also the one arm across the front which is often used by people (mainly women) who are aware of what both arms crossed indicates and don’t want to be so overtly defensive (Princess Diana used to stand like this very often). Women will also use their handbags as a prop to do the same thing; whilst men will tug on a shirt cuff (you must have seen Prince Charles do this before he gives a speech?).

I do have to point out though, that crossing arms doesn’t always indicate defensiveness. I’m aware that I’m often really cold and tend to cross my arms to keep the warmth in, especially in today’s air conditioned offices (although I usually make a point of telling people that so that they aren’t offended if I do it).

Personal Space

There are 4 zones associated with personal space:

  1. The Intimate Zone – reserved for people with whom we are very close eg family member, mum/dad /children, partner
  2. The Outer Intimate Zone – for close friends
  3. The Personal Zone – for people we feel comfortable with eg colleagues, friends at the pub
  4. The Social Zone – People we are not familiar with

We should be very carefully that we enter the correct personal space depending on the person that we are talking to. For example, if you don’t know someone well, but enter into their Outer Zone, that could be perceived as being very intimidating by the person whose space you’ve entered. Similarly if you are in a relationship with someone but don’t enter their Intimate Zone, they may well feel isolated and unloved.

It amazes me how some people don’t know this really simple stuff about personal zones. I remember talking to someone (a stranger) at a networking meeting and he kept moving into my Outer personal space. Each time he did, I would take a step back as it felt incredibly uncomfortable and a bit intimidating. Unfortunately, each time I took a step back, he took another step forward until I ended up pinned between a wall and him – absolutely not a good place to be. I politely excused myself and got away as quickly as I could.

Summary (Personal Zones)

Whenever you’re talking to someone, be aware of their personal space and make sure that you are in the appropriate zone according to your relationship with that person. Remember that most body language (unless you’ve studied it or know a bit about it) is completely subconscious, ie we don’t know that we’re doing it. Therefore, it really is your choice to make sure that your body language is positive and relevant to the situation you’re in.

There is so much more that I could talk about regarding body language. I’m really only scraping the surface here and choosing the most common body language mistakes that people make. What I do want to tell you about in my next post is creating rapport using a body language technique called mirroring.


Do you struggle to understand others' body language? Or do you suffer from social phobia and want to 'look' and feel more at ease in social situations?  Contact us for a free, no obligation consultation on how we can help you.

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