Monday, March 27, 2017

Perceptions Matter on the Job

Several years ago, I was in a meeting and had just given my report. 

When I was finished taking questions, I sat back in my seat and crossed my arms while I listened to others in my group provide their own reports.

After the meeting, a co-worker I had known for many years stopped me in the hallway.

"Are you mad at someone?" he asked.

"No, why?" I said.

"Because you sat in that meeting with your arms crossed and it just seemed to me you looked mad -- or at least not happy to be there," he said.

After assuring him I was fine, I reassessed what I had done. I often sit with my arms crossed because I tend to fidget, which I worry will distract others. Crossing my arms tightly is a strategy I developed as a child in church so that I wouldn't get "that look" from my mom that said: "Stop fidgeting and sit still!"

I guess I adopted the same strategy as I got into the business world, especially since we all know that most meetings run too long and that can make anyone fidget -- especially me.

Now I worried that I was sending the wrong message in meetings to my colleagues who saw my crossed arms not as a way for me to focus and pay attention, but as a way to convey my boredom or ire. Not good.

I share this story because no matter how long you've been in the working world, there are still things left to learn. One of the most important is to constantly reassess the message you're sending to others through your actions. Are you unconsciously giving off a message of boredom, anger or disinterest?

Here are some things to think about:

  • Staring. Sometimes when you sit behind your laptop or desk at work, you may get the sense that it's shielding you in some way. It's not. Others can still see you staring at them, especially when they're having a private conversation via phone or in person. Offices are often wide open these days, so it's important that you give everyone a sense of privacy by not staring at them while they work or have conversations. Staring comes across as disrespectful and nosy.
  • Dodgy eyes. I came across this recently while have a conversation with a young woman. I'd ask her a question, and as she answered her eyes moved all around the room. She looked at the table, across the room, then quickly swerved back to my face for a second before against dodging her eyes to various places. I sensed that she was perhaps shy or nervous, even though she was telling me about her vacation. In the end, it was a bit exhausting to watch and I thought of how it made her appear unconfident -- not something that will be a benefit at work.
  • Being too relaxed. A lot of workplaces have relaxed their dress codes and have become more lenient with other behavior such as allowing employees to wear headphones to listen to music. But things can go too far when you're slouched in a meeting or at your desk like your spine won't hold your body up anymore. Or, you take your shoes off (if your shoes are uncomfortable, wear other shoes). Or, you show up for work with wet hair that doesn't dry until about noon. Or, you wear a t-shirt that says, "I slept with your sister." Remember that every day you want to give the impression that you're ready for the next big challenge or promotion, not considering a nap.
As for my crossed arms, I found a study that says you're 30% more likely to stay on a difficult task with crossed arms. So, my crossed arms in a meeting show that I was indeed paying attention and engaged in what others were saying.

Still, that doesn't erase the perception by my co-worker (and maybe others) that I wasn't engaged in the meeting or was even mad at someone. Since then, I've tried to watch my body language in meetings and elsewhere, thinking about how my behavior affects those around me. 

If you've got a trusted colleague, or even someone you look up to professionally, ask them to give you a heads up if your body language isn't professional or you're doing something that undermines your credibility at work. Sometimes it's the little things that can get you ahead at work -- or put you behind.

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