It might come across as trivial at first but it goes back to prehistoric times. Body language is a largely under-estimated contributor in our exchanges with people, in particular our facial expressions.  In those early days where the spoken language hadn’t evolved as yet, facial expressions were a main indicator of mood and intention. 

To establish some foundation and authenticity of what’s to come, I need to refer to Megan Reitz, a Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Hult International Business School, who co-authored an article in Harvard Business Review (July 2019) under the title “Managers, you are more intimidating than you think’. The article reports back on research she conducted, and which explores the reasons behind why so many managers are perceived ‘scary and intimidating’ although they themselves think they are approachable. ‘The broken mirror effect’ comes to mind. In this instance, virtually literally. 

She mentions certain contributing factors that at first glance will draw chuckles, if not outright disbelief, from most of you, in what appear to be really silly reasons employees bring forward when asked what they consider to be intimidating behaviour by their bosses. The point is that at first glance, the behaviours reported are passive in nature, i.e. not wanton behaviour by bosses but rather associations and assumptions made by staff. Reitz refers to it as the ‘scariness’ being a relational experience rather than a personal attribute. 

The catch is that it doesn’t make it less real for staff.  Most of the staff’s interpretations of their boss’s actions sprout from his mere position of authority, solidified by a title. The fact that a person carries ‘power’ over another can in itself place him in a situation where his actions and conduct are viewed against a backdrop of suspicion and distrust. Outside appearances like height, a strong voice or high degree of self-confidence can easily turn completely innocent actions into intimidating experiences by staff.  This response is outside a boss’s direct control. 

Keeping this in mind, Reitz warns bosses to be extremely self-aware of their conduct – as in body language, and utterances in their interactions with staff. Type A bosses that don’t like to be challenged or questioned have an even stronger negative impact on staff behaviour and performance. Staff that feel ‘intimidated’, even ever so slightly, will think twice before answering your call for input and feedback during meetings.  

It gets worse. Under a section of the article called ‘Watch your face’, she quotes real life examples of the incredible effect a manager’s facial expressions can have on how he is perceived by others. She also mentions Nancy Kline, the author of ‘Time to Think’ who refers to this phenomenon as ‘knowing your face’. I’m really not making this up. 

I found Reitz’s research findings rather liberating. I wish I had known about the power of the face in my communication with people 20 years ago. My colleagues most probably too.  I happen to be born with a ‘serious’ face, with a large frown and as I’m told, rather intense eyes. Over the many years of hard work, concentration and stress, the standard look on my face hasn’t become any ‘friendlier’. As a matter of fact, my frown could hold a credit card.  I learned later on in my career that my relaxed look signalled ‘I am busy, don’t disturb’ and when I was in thought, my face told people to ‘shut up’, rather than ‘speak up’. When I passed a comment, it was either received as an instruction or criticism. 

I’ve been told many times during my career that I could be overbearing. I always found that a bit strange – I would call that behaviour enthusiastic and driven.  As incredulous and surreal as it all sounds, I’m for sure a perfect example of Reitz’s observations. Her findings do explain some of the unexpected negative reactions I unwittingly solicited from people throughout my career. I feel somewhat vindicated now. On the other hand, people with high levels of emotional intelligence and low levels of stress would have been a lot more aware of the impact of their actions and behaviour. Bosses beware. If this brings a smile to your face, keep it as long as you can. It does wonders for staff motivation.

By Frank Vos A transformer of Business and People at Vos Consulting