Body Language: Signs and Messages
An old adage maintains that actions speak louder than words. If this is the case, it is also true that non-verbal communications, which is to say body language among other methods, also speaks volumes, especially in the organizational context. The ways that individuals communicate with parts of their bodies other than their mouths are often more impressive (or offensive as the case may be) than thousands of words that are spoken. With the consideration of body language within organizations in mind, this paper will discuss the various facets of body language. Upon conclusion of the paper, it is the goal of the researcher to provide additional insight into this fascinating and highly relevant topic.
Brief Overview of Body Language
Before getting into the finer points of body language within organizations, one must first understand more fully what is exactly meant by body language itself. Body language, for the sake of an easily utilized definition, is all of the physical movements, facial expressions, eye movements and the like that one uses to convey an idea, thought, emotion, etc (Lord, et al, 2002). This body language can be either intentional or accidental on the part of the communicator of the body language itself. Therefore, by being aware of the presence and importance of body language, the observant individual can almost read someone’s mind. Of course, the ability to do this is extremely valuable for the members of business organizations, especially managers who find it difficult to get truthful information and answers from subordinates. In this instance, subordinates often are saying exactly what they are thinking, either without saying or word, or when saying something to the opposite, when their body language betrays their thoughts.
Overall, with an understanding of body language in mind, there emerge several important things to remember about body language, especially in the context of organizational theory and communication. For example, those who realize that their body language is being read can in fact control that body language to either state what they would like to convey, or to intentionally depict something that is the opposite of what they are in fact thinking. In many cases, this is the very tool that could be used for organizational success and survival.
Relevance of Body Language in Organizational Theory
Organizationally speaking, body language, which is to say non-verbal communication is considered by researchers to be more important than the actual words that one may say; in other words, if someone communicates a feeling or idea either with language and accompanying body language or only the body language itself, the non-verbal makes a more memorable point than the words themselves (Tourish, 2004). For this reason, one can see countless examples of people within their own organizations who are not the most eloquent speakers, but the gestures, movements and facial expressions they utilize with their speech make them highly respected and regarded as great communicators.
Relating body language directly to organizational theory is an area of study which has led to a better understanding of organizations from the inside out in recent years, and improved managerial effectiveness. Managing within organizations has become more and more difficult in recent years due to the fast pace of society outside and inside of the organization; employees not only have a great deal of tasks to complete in their professional capacity, but also many challenges and problems aside from business which impact one’s ability to function organizationally (Segerstrile, et al, 1997). With this, managers are competing with any number of distractions that keep their messages from effectively reaching their subordinates. The attention span of the average individual, as well as their ability to carry out the tasks assigned to them, is greatly diminished due to these influences. Therefore, when managers can both convey and read body language, they possess the talent to get more completed in less time. This one simple benefit- the ability to get more completed in less time- is something that countless organizations have paid literally millions or even billions of dollars to consultants, highly paid executives, and the creators of highly complicated software packages to try to achieve, often times with little or no results. The bottom line in terms of body language is this- it serves literally as a truth detector as well as a sort of translator that helps those communicating with each other to not only separate fact from lies, but also to gather the true meaning of what is being said. This in and of itself holds the power to be able to move complicated projects forward, keep organizational teams properly informed and engaged in important projects, and to avoid the common communication pitfalls that have led to the downfall of many, many organizations over the years.
Another sort of side benefit that body language has, which many people never stop to consider, is the ability for body language to serve as a language in itself. In other words, organizationally speaking, there are occasions when individuals speak different verbal languages or come from different cultures which could in fact impair the relaying and receiving of accurate messages (Clarke, 2000). However, communication tools such as body language can in fact make it possible for individuals who do not share a common verbal language to still be able to communicate. In the case of multinational organizations, the impact of this alone could be tremendous.
Aside from the organizational relevance of body language, it also bears discussion as to the relevance of body language in all areas of human interaction. Take, for example, the process of getting a job that one may want, applying for a loan, trying to be admitted to a prestigious college, or even asking someone out on a date. Even with the most sincere of intentions, the wrong body language can give the impression that you are either trying to communicate something totally different from what you in fact are trying to do, or your sincerity could be questioned, merely from the signals you are sending out through gestures, facial expressions, use of the eyes, or even the way that the body is positioned when seated or standing. Let us take this example back to the beginning of a hypothetical situation, perhaps a job interview. For the sake of illustration, an individual seeking a job first meets his potential employer, knowing deep inside that they want to make the best possible impression. However, because of nervousness or whatever, the applicant greets their potential employer by not looking them directly in the eye, extending their hand for a handshake at a downward angle, accompanied by a weak and clammy grip. While this is usually due to nervousness, the body language sent out is that the person may be insincere, not actually interested in meeting to discuss the job, or outright deceptive- all bad things to convey. Furthermore, if you are seated or standing with feet pointed toward the door, or worse yet, with a toe pointed directly at the person to whom you are speaking, you are unwittingly showing forms of aggression or a desire to leave as soon as possible. On the other hand, a firm handshake, a smiling look directly in the eye of the person you are meeting and the positioning of your body in the proper way when seated or standing can send out the right message (Salopek, 2003). As one can see, body language makes all of the difference in so many ways.
Strengths/Weaknesses of Body Language
Having already discussed what body language is, how important it can be, and its usefulness in a variety of ways, it is also significant to understand that body language carries along with it a distinct list of strengths and weaknesses. Knowing these, especially in an organizational setting, can be just as important as knowing what body language is and how to use it.
Of course, it is easy to say that the proper use of body language can add to the effectiveness of organizational communication, management and the achievement of organizational objectives (Verckens, 2003). Taking this a step further, however, it is possible to use the mastery of body language as a skill to be honed within the members of an organization as a means of increasing the strength of the organization. For instance, if an organization’s sales force learns how to project a positive body language system, it is easy to see what an advantage this will provide to the organization as opposed to competitors who may be weak in body language, or not even understand what body language may be. Managers who are “fluent” in body language, in a sense, have the insight into the minds of subordinates that makes managers great. All of this filters down to the benefit of the whole organization.
In fairness, there are also weaknesses in the use of body language. One point that has been made repeatedly in this paper is that improper body language can cause more harm than good- this must be repeated once again. This is a powerful communication tool that must not be improperly used, lest it cause serious organizational damage.
Body language, as we have seen in this paper, can be a welcomed friend or a damaging enemy. With this in mind, in closing, let it also be said that body language, whether seen as a lost art or emerging communication tool, needs to be rediscovered by organizations if they are to excel in the modern, ever more complex business world.
Clarke, Robyn D. “You’ve Got the Power!.” Black Enterprise Dec. 2000: 166.
Lord, Robert G., Richard J. Klimoski, and Ruth Kanfer, eds. Emotions in the Workplace: Understanding the Structure and Role of Emotions in Organizational Behavior. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.
Salopek, Jennifer J. “Accentuate the Positive.” T&D Sept. 2003: 19+.
Segerstrîle, Ullica, and Peter Molnár, eds. Nonverbal Communication Where Nature Meets Culture. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.
Tourish, Dennis, and Owen Hargie, eds. Key Issues in Organizational Communication. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Verckens, J. Piet. “Nonverbal Communication across Disciplines.” Business Communication Quarterly 66.4 (2003): 121+.
Do not simply select a topic and describe a model, theory, or element of organizational theory. The paper can include some description, but should also analyze the topic, address appropriate “whys?”, examine pros/cons or strengths/potential weaknesses, etc.
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