Are you mad at me? That’s a pretty eye-opening question to be asked, especially if in your opinion there is no basis to think such a thing. That is exactly what happened to Adam Bryant, a contributor to LinkedIn and writer of the column Corner Office for The New York Times.
A colleague I had worked with over the years came up to me in the hallway and asked if we could talk in a conference room. Sure, I said, wondering what was up. We sat down, and the question came out of the blue: “Are you mad at me?” Of course not, I responded immediately, since I had to no reason to be.
I was puzzled, but I realized later what was going on. As an editor, I faced a lot of tight deadlines, and I would often have just a short window to get a story into shape for the next day’s paper. I’m guessing I was thinking hard about some story as I walked through the newsroom one day — probably furrowing my brow, my mind a million miles away — when I briefly locked eyes with my colleague, who was startled enough by my body language to later pull me into a conference room to wonder if the air needed to be cleared between us.
That colleague did me a huge favor, because I learned a memorable lesson that day about how people can read so much into subtle, and often unintended, cues. From that moment on, I found myself making much more of an effort to be aware of my body language, particularly with the team of reporters I was leading, and to always show energy, confidence and optimism, even if I was on a tight deadline and wrestling with a difficult problem.
Many of us have similar stories. People can’t read our minds, but they do try to read our body language. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong. When they’re wrong is it because we have given the wrong message? It is very important to identify situations in which you may be giving unintended cues. Bryant has an example of how to avoid this type of miscommunication.
Many CEOs have told me similar stories about moments when they realized how much they were, in effect, constantly under the bright lights of a stage, intensely scrutinized by employees who often pay more attention to the non-verbal cues than what their leaders are saying. Do they look concerned? Is something up?
It’s a challenge that every leader faces. Here’s a smart tip that Jeffrey Swartz, the former CEO of Timberland, told me he learned from his father:
“I remember him saying, ‘Pick a face. If you want to be serious, then you have to be serious all the time. Because if you’re serious one day and happy the next, people will be confused. They won’t be able to figure out where you’re coming from and that’ll be threatening.’”
Pick a face. Ever since that colleague asked me the surprising question about whether I was angry, I’ve tried to pick a face – no more furrowed brows – and be consistent. If leaders are consistent, then their employees can spend more time focusing on their work, and less time searching for clues in the boss’s body language.
I believe the real question here is this. What face do YOU want to be known for? Friendly, approachable, and happy or distant, unapproachable and angry? Ask yourself… What’s really in my heart? If it is, friendly, approachable, and happy, then show it. It’s as simple as that. It’s your choice. The more you show it the more you feel it. It builds on itself, and it makes a real difference to the people around you.