This past Thursday night my wife and I watched the Chicago Bears vs. Green Bay Packers football game. At one point in the game, Jay Cutler, quarterback for the Bears, was shown on the sidelines striking a pose similar to the one on the right. I made a comment to my wife about Cutler having the worst body language of any player in the NFL, and the more I thought about it in the context of trust and leadership, the more I was reminded of the power of our body language to either build or erode trust in relationships.
Even from his days playing college ball at Vanderbilt, Jay Cutler has caught flak for the negative vibes he puts off because of his mannerisms and facial expressions. Although he’s heard the feedback, either he’s had difficulty modifying his behavior or he simply doesn’t care to change. Either way, Cutler’s example provides an excellent case study for leaders on what NOT to do when it comes to communicating through body language.
Don’t let your body language…
♦ Say “I’d rather be anywhere else except here” – The faraway look in your eyes, frowning, restlessness, or checking your watch and phone are all classic signals that tell your colleagues that you’d rather be anywhere else except with them. It’s easy for leaders to get preoccupied about pressing deadlines or situations, but it’s important to stay present in conversations and communicate your interest by leaning forward, paraphrasing what you’ve heard, and making steady eye contact.
♦ Imply that you’re blaming others and refusing to take ownership of your own performance – Literally throwing your arms up in exasperation over someone’s mistake or reacting indignantly in an effort to cast the blame of your mistake to someone else are surefire ways to erode trust. People don’t like to be “thrown under the bus,” so the next time you get ready to point your finger at someone, remember that you have four fingers pointing back at you.
♦ Show that defeat and discouragement has gotten the best of you – Leaders will undoubtedly face times of struggle and loss. The true character of a leader isn’t revealed during the good times when the team is winning, but in the bad times when the losing streak occurs. Keep your head held high, shoulders back, and walk with a purposeful stride. Your team will gather strength and confidence from your behavior and follow suit.
♦ Communicate smugness and indifference toward people – That little “know it all” smirk that forms on your face, which seems to come particularly easy for leaders with large egos, is a death knell for high-trust relationships. Most people can tolerate a sense of arrogance from someone if they’re able to back it up with performance results, but demonstrating a lack of respect for others by rolling your eyes, smirking, or folding your arms in disgust or impatience turns people away from you forever.
From the moment of a first impression to the repeated behavior of ongoing interactions, the way you communicate with your body language plays a critical role in building trust. Don’t unintentionally erode trust by letting your body language communicate things you don’t mean. It’s awful easy to develop a bad reputation and it’s extremely hard to turn it around. Just ask Jay Cutler.