As leaders in business and elsewhere, we are often preoccupied with our employees, peers, bosses and how to support or cultivate their effectiveness. But before we can be really successful in leading others, we have to be masterful at managing ourselves, our emotional triggers, how we behave, how we are perceived and the way that those perceptions effect those with whom we interact. There are several important reasons why this is so important.
- Culture: One of the most crucial aspects of successful organizations is the culture, and it is also one of the most elusive things to describe, measure and alter. But it ultimately mirrors the ethos of the leadership. When the leadership fosters inclusiveness, free expression and innovation, the organizational culture shows high levels of those traits. The inverse is also true.
- Optimal Performance: People perform better when they feel valued and understand their roles. When organizational leaders can express appreciation through both their words and expressions, and can communicate in a way that is crystal clear and unsullied, people typically excel.
In order to deliver these outcomes, leaders must become truly expert at consciously working on how they are perceived; not in the way that a politician does so, as a manipulation — but as an authentic expression of a commitment to building connections that work and elicit the best in others. The main challenge to doing this is our innate blindness about how we “seem” at any given moment, and how well we really listen, communicate and make others feel. Leading social scientists like Paul Ekman have been doing research into the ways that humans communicate beyond what they actually say. Micro-expressions are tiny facial movements that occur in less than 1/25th of a second and are detected by others just as fast. They are also largely automatic, and are expressed before your conscious mind may even know that you have been emotionally upset by something or made a specific, ungenerous judgment. Those micro-expressions telegraph our beliefs and our level of comfort with what we are actually saying. So while we are saying the right things as leaders, many times, our faces or body language betray us as being dishonest, insincere or distracted.
This basic lack of self-consciousness is not a failure, it is simply outside of our normal ability to assess. We have only the “lagging indicators” about how we do in any given interaction — that indicator being what people say later or what their faces say. Without learning how to identify our own moment-by-moment experience, expressions and intent, we can not gain strength in this area. So learning to be attuned to our own unsaid communication is essential to being great leaders.
One route to gaining some knowledge about your own unspoken communication can come from becoming a better observer of yourself and others. The main ways that you can learn what you need to know are pretty straightforward:
- Watch how people are reacting as you speak. Notice when they look negative, or when they stop talking, or when their level of expressiveness becomes subdued in response to your communication.
- Become observant about your own bodily sensations, whether that means your level of muscular tension, whether you are feeling hot or cold — on your face, your neck or cheeks. Your autonomic nervous system will work in perfect synchronization with your real feelings and thoughts — not necessarily with what you are saying.
- Check your internal monologue. Are you actually thinking something that is in conflict with what you are saying? That kind of inauthenticity or hypocrisy is impossible to hide. Explore why your thoughts and words are at odds with each other. The same can be said for suppressed anger, frustration or annoyance. Assume that while you think you are disguising your emotions, they are plainly obvious through your micro-expressions and non-verbal cues.
- Become super-curious and ask people what they think, how they feel and what they can offer in feedback. Then listen and learn.
None of this is easy. And none of it is fast. But to the extent you can become a super-sleuth about how you are really communicating and learn how to manage those non-verbal signals, you can become a far more effective and magnetic leader. By the way, this also makes a huge difference in personal relationships. The management of ourselves, and learning how to interact with authenticity, free of hidden agendas, feelings or opinions is really powerful. It will leave you happier and freer, and provide a platform for those you lead to be truly great!