Let ‘em read ya like a book

utilizing nonverbal communication skills in project teams

“Actions speak louder than words,” “the eyes are the window to the soul,” “read you like an open book” are just some of the many clichés that bring home the importance of nonverbal communication. There is a myriad of nonverbal communication that accompanies the things we say to our teams and to our sponsors that are completely in our control, yet we wonder daily how our words are misconstrued by our audiences. Nonverbal messages are responsible for providing information, expressing intimacy, and exercising social control (Aguinig, Simenson, & Pierce, 1998). The key to harnessing the power of nonverbal communication is the same key that unlocks all successful communication: self-awareness. As the classic blues song says, “Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself.” We can wonder all day long about how others receive our messages, but until we take action to make those messages as clear as possible, we will not realize the potential power of effective communication. It’s sort of like making a movie. Every aspect of the film including costumes, make-up, camera angles, and lighting are all coordinated to send messages about the story or characters. Through awareness and control of nonverbal codes such as eye movement, body movement, touch, use of space, personal appearance, the things we surround ourselves with and the way we use time, the occurrences of sending messages not intended will diminish, and the communication most important to our projects can be accentuated. In other words, we can make our own movie magic by synchronizing ALL of our communication efforts to tell the same story.

Some things to keep in mind before delving into the individual nonverbal codes include realizing that this discussion is not about reading other people’s communication, but rather controlling the communication we send for others to read. Second, it must be emphasized that nonverbal communication has been shown to be highly dependent on such things as geography and culture, and even to some extent gender and age (Anderson, 1999; Remland, Jones, & Brinkman, 1995). What follows is a generalization of research for American and Canadian behaviors. Last, be aware that this is only one of many tools for the project manager; it is not the silver bullet that makes every project successful.

Oculesics: Star(e) Wars

Oculesics is the study of how the eyes send messages (Anderson, 1999), and perhaps the best-known message is that of power. The importance of eye contact and eye movement has long been noted in establishing power (“DON’T EYEBALL ME, SOLDIER!”). In a study by Johnson (1997), gaze was linked to power and surveillance. A steady gaze when addressing your team not only delivers a message of control, but also underscores trust, and trust is a foot in the door for persuasion and gaining compliance (Bernstein, 1994). Conversely, averting your eyes from team members sometimes says that you’re unsure of your message, you’re not showing the big picture, or you are not sincere. When addressing meetings or teams, allow your eyes fall on each member in turn for about four seconds. Always look at the member you are speaking to or who is speaking to you.

Eyes can be friendly, political, and even assault weapons (Berstein, 1994). There is, of course, a fine line between acknowledging team members and staring holes through them! Notice what length of time people look at you when speaking to you, and note what makes you comfortable and uncomfortable, then work that into your own actions. Controlling eye movement and contact is the starting point for inviting team members into your vision of how the project should run.

Kinesics: Walking Tall

Kinesics, commonly referred to as “body language,” is essential in face-to-face meetings, and includes facial expressions, gestures, body movements, and body position. We already, to some extent, control facial expressions through rules we have learned from our cultures. For example, we do not usually allow ourselves to become slack-jawed or bug-eyed when we’re told our budget is slashed (again!), though that may be our gut reaction. There are, however, more subtle expressions of the body, and especially the face, that can help in our struggles with project communication. Smiling is an interesting gesture that often gets things off on the right foot. Smiling has a powerful way of releasing tension when things get a bit too serious. However, because in many cultures, smiling is subconsciously considered a submissive act, be aware of the combination of gestures you display when trying to lighten the mood. Shrugging shoulders or lowering the head combined with smiling can communicate a meek message, while the same smile with direct eye contact and chin up can send a very strong and confident massage, while still loosening the tension.

Moreover, our limbs can be leaking messages that can be controlled for a polished delivery when making presentations or arguments. While you may not want to necessarily talk with your hands, appropriate gestures can drive your point home. In using gestures, make them large enough to be noticed, but not at the price of violating someone’s personal space. Many individuals can remember gestures easier and longer than words (Bernstein, 1994). Establish illustrators to important concepts. Verbalize a key point while displaying a very distinct gesture to coincide with your words. Do the combination again, and perhaps a third time. After that the gesture alone will suffice to remind your team what’s important.

The position of the body is yet another focus of kinesics. Lean your body toward the person speaking to you, and you will send a message of interest and attention. Body orientation is another way to send kinesic messages. Open body orientation (uncrossed arms, full confrontational stance) are not natural for most of us, but communicates honesty and bravery (Briton & Hall, 1995). If there’s four things every project could use it would certainly be interest, attentiveness, honesty, and bravery!

As with most nonverbal cues, the problem we have most is not being aware that we are sending any messages at all (Anderson, 1999). Research shows that the farther away from the head you go, the more your body reveals your true emotions (Bernstein, 1994), as in shaking your foot during formal situations. Though you may be poker-faced on the outside, your foot says that on the inside you may be nervous, uncomfortable, anxious, or feeling confined. Kinesics can powerfully assist your cause when brought under control.

Haptics: A Touch of Class

A third nonverbal code is haptics, or communication through touch (Anderson, 1999). Of course the first thing that leaps to mind when touch is mentioned in a business situation is a big-figure sexual harassment lawsuit. Though this is a wise thing to keep in mind, touch can be a powerful ally in persuasion. Touch on the forearm or upper arm when combined with the right words has been shown to increase compliance in research subjects as much as 30% over words alone (Remland & Jones, 1994). Of course the best-known haptic behavior in business is the handshake, and through the centuries has been a symbol of trust and cooperation. It is of great importance, however, to know with whom you are dealing when it comes to touch. Different cultures and age groups have higher levels of touch avoidance than others (Hofstede in Anderson, 1999), as does every individual. Many HR professional would agree that this is the nonverbal code you want to be most careful with. Others make sense of this world based on their own preferences and not your intentions (Madonik, 1990).

Artifacts: The Red Badge of Courage

The clothes we wear, the briefcases we carry, the jewelry we don, and everything else we choose to surround ourselves with are all considered artifacts in communication lingo. Just as archeological artifacts are all we have to reconstruct ancient and mysterious civilizations, so are your artifacts all unfamiliar team members have to create an impression of you. McCoy (1996) reports that it only takes six to twelve seconds to establish a first impression. Once that impression is set, negative behaviors are more easily forgiven with a positive impression, but for a negative impression, the subject can do no right!

We’ve all heard the term “dress for success,” but like the other codes, there are many ways to send messages you don’t intend at all. For instance, the next time you whip out that expensive Palm Pilot, remember that at the worker bee level in many business organizations, hand-held computers are still considered to be little more than a status symbol, especially if you’re fidgeting with it while others are trying to provide input. You can’t help to what level people will go to make assumptions about you (your coffee mug, your pen), so the best you can do is to give a thought to whether or not you want to change what those things say about you. Don’t be afraid to wear your intentions on your sleeve!

Vocalics: Something to Shout About

Vocalics, the nonverbal qualities of our voice, are important to understand in any situation, but vital in today’s growing trend of multisite teams, where you may not be known by anything other than your voice. Elements of vocalics include tempo and quality, volume, and accent. According to research, by using various qualities of the voice, there are more then 25 ways we can say the word “yes.” Such easy things as slightly increasing tempo to in speech to rally the troops, or punctuating every syllable to drive home a point can clarify and make presentations much more dynamic. As with kinesics (leaning the body toward someone) and haptics (light touch to the forearm with fingertips), vocalics in the form of a pleasant tone of voice is actually considered an immediacy cue that draws people in and makes them feel more comfortable in unfamiliar situations. On the other hand, continue to keep in mind cross-cultural preferences!

Investigations into vocal volume have led to conclusions that our cultures define how loud our voices should be for different situations (Remland & Jones, 1994). One communication theory called “Expectancy Violation” posits that whatever volume falls outside of our perceived norm for a given situation will intrigue and arouse us in either a positive or negative way (Anderson, Guerrero, Buller, & Jorgensen, 1998). If you audience seems to be slipping away, a subtle adjustment in volume could do the trick.

In the United States, particular attention should be paid to your accent. Stereotypes about Southern and non-American accents can cloud judgment and hinder team cohesiveness. While working on my MBA, I studied my own company, CenturyTel, and found subtle prejudices against southern American accents, especially where perceived intelligence is concerned. If you have a southern American accent or any other accent you know comes with stigmas, perhaps you can work a bit harder to dispel those beliefs before they raise their ugly heads.

Physical Appearance: American Beauty

Whether or not we like to admit it, stereotypes based on our physical appearance dominate first impressions. Though we usually can’t or do not wish to change our physical appearance, there are some conclusions drawn about the way we look that are useful to know. According to Anderson (1999), our sex, style, race, age, body type, and mood can affect attributes others adding to us concerning competence, moral character, personality, social status, and friendliness. Think for a moment of the characteristics you assign to an overweight, unkempt person, then remember that chances are you know nothing about most of the accuracy of the characteristics you attributed to that person. For example, studies have shown that overweight people are automatically assumed to be (even by other overweight people) slow, lazy, and even jolly (Anderson, 1999). Like vocal regional accents, this is not a suggestion for change, but rather an invitation to understand myths related to your physical appearance as a preventative measure.

Proxemics: From Here to Eternity

We all appreciate the importance of “elbow room,” and proxemics takes a look at the use of space in communication (Anderson, 1999). The old standby is that people who take more space have more power (larger office, larger rental car). Be sure to take your appropriate amount of space when addressing meetings. Hands in the lap or barely visible make your input to meetings less visible. Move through and use the space around you, not only to communicate strength, but to keep all eyes on you as well (Bernstein, 1994). Once again knowing the people around you helps to judge space issues. Some of us simply need more space than others. Be sensitive to the fact that people are backing away when you walk up. First, check your breath, and then realize you may be simply standing too close for comfort!

Once again, proxemics are governed heavily by cultural norms and individual preferences. Geography actually plays a large role in proxemics. Those who live in large cities have a higher level of tolerance for crowding than those raised in rural areas. No matter where we’re from it is natural for us to be territorial, so check yourself before grabbing someone’s pen or other item they may consider their own. Often people place things around them (papers, pens, coffee mug) as proxemic markers of their territories. Crossing those markers usually gives a negative impression to the territory owner. Therefore, a balance must be struck between using the space you need to establish your agenda and being respectful of others’ territories.

Chronemics: Wait Until Dark

As project managers, we can not usually say that “time is on our side.” An understanding of a final nonverbal code, chronemics (communication through the use and perception of time) won’t remedy that, but it can help get another aspect of our communication under control. In American and Canadian society, making others wait is generally considered undesirable but is less offensive the more power the late person is perceived to have. This can be an adverse effect if you’re trying to level-set and foster a team environment. Another aspect of chronemics that is usually difficult for a project manager to accommodate is the amount of time spent with individuals on the team. All the memos and voice mail in the world, no matter how well intended, can’t replace sit-down evaluation time and two-way communication.

Conclusion: Practical Magic

Finally, it is perhaps most important to remember that this is all theory and a broad generalization of the very diverse behavior of millions of people. By nature, nonverbal communication is ambiguous, easily misinterpreted, and highly subjective (Karrass, 1992; Manusov, Floyd, & Kerssen-Greip, 1997). When you see someone’s eyes suddenly pop wide open, it could mean they’ve remembered something they’ve forgotten, it could mean they’ve just had the idea of their career, or it could mean that their laxative didn’t work overnight as advertised. This uncertain nature in reading others’ nonverbal communication is the primary reason the scope of this paper covers being aware of and modifying your own behavior.

It’s not easy for project managers to juggle what is already on their plate, and worrying about nonverbal communication is among the last things most of us need or want to take on. However, try to think of it more as a project plan. When we first come into the profession of project management, we feel like a project plan is a waste of time, then they get easier, and soon you don’t know how you ever functioned without them. So take this tool, polish it, and give it a comfortable home. Place it on the shelf right next to your beloved project plan methodology and with a little consideration and practice, you’ll be wondering how you let all those unintentional messages slip out for so long.


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Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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