When Leaders Make Faces

You've seen them, a furrowed brow, a cavalier smirk, a tight-lipped stare. Facial expressions seem to say so much. They are quicker, more compact, and often more potent than any verbal formulations that follow them. Perhaps they are a truer representation of our immediate thoughts and feelings. Or maybe they simply reveal more transparently a mix of reactions. In any case, some are clearer than others.

Leading with Our Face

The faces we make are seen and interpreted in a situational and subjective context. This context can contribute confusion and lead us to see something the expresser did not intend. Does he convey positive, negative, or neutral feelings? If the expresser is a stranger, we may see condescension in a smirk. Knowing him better may cause others to perceive a playful, affectionate tease.

Then, there is the mood state of the observer: If she's been struggling in a new role and disappointing more than dazzling her superiors, she may be feeling a bit insecure, her confidence shaken. She may wonder "Am I losing the support of those who sponsored me?" As her sense of power and confidence declines, she may be hypervigilant for signs of negative evaluation, and she may overgeneralize and amplify such "bad news" (Uskal et al, 2016).

Facial expressions are potent. They can be ambiguous, vulnerable to wildly varying interpretations and misinterpretations. This is a matter of some consequence if the expresser happens to be a leader. For if there is one thing we all might agree upon it is that leaders should clarify, not confuse, bolster confidence, not cause hesitation and doubt. Intellectually, there's little dispute in this proposition; practically speaking, it's easier said than done.

We Are Always Communicating

Although nonverbal modes of communication are believed to contribute up to 70% of the emotional meaning we convey in our interactions with others, they are also more prone to misinterpretation as compared to the explicit semantic meaning conveyed by verbal communication. If these risks arise at home, with family, or even with our better friends at work, it's consoling to know that these audiences are more forgiving.

Those who know us well and with whom we have developed a basis of abiding trust and goodwill are likely to dismiss our communicative missteps as part of being human, errors that are both predictable and survivable. We find ways to clear up such misunderstandings and proceed, and even more so when we've come to one know one another's quirks and points of view over time. 

But if the context includes both less familiarity as well as asymmetric power dynamics, the situation is riskier. Along with greater formality and the distance created by vertical differences in status and authority, come different expectations. Take for example a new divisional president interacting with a district sales manager and his team. 

The President "dropped in" to get the pulse of the business from field sales. The district manager knew she would be visiting and attending his team's meeting, but little more. After brief introductory remarks, she insists that they go ahead with their agenda. She explains that she is there to "listen and learn." But soon the district manager invites his team members to ask her any questions that may be on their minds. 

Even as she listens to the first question, her facial expression intensifies, conveying a serious attitude. Perhaps it seems to convey a weightier mood than the question that elicited it. Then, holding this expression, she she seeks to clarify the question, and a palpable sense of anxiety grows. No more questions are raised. The district manager "throws her a softball" question and the meeting comes to a rather awkward close.

In this example, the President's facial expressions concealed as much or more than they revealed. The district manager glosses over the strained dynamic and confused messages in his debrief with her before she leaves. Privately he is thinking "Wow, what was that about?" If business is great, he and his team may simply chalk it up to her being new, "A lot going on." If performance is suffering and she's here to improve it, well...

In any event, if part of her intention was to not only get the pulse of the business (requiring openness and candor) but to introduce herself and begin shaping expectations, she missed an opportunity to do that. Presumably, those aims were business relevant, for more than than social purposes alone. She probably anticipated that by connecting with the group she would begin to influence attitudes and motivation. But it's not clear that her aims were not particularly well planned.

The simple lesson: We are always communicating, and when we are leaders our communications are consequential, sometimes more so than other times. Therefore, it will be particularly important to: 1) know who your audience is and what you would like to accomplish with them; 2) understand what your nonverbals convey, how congruent or incongruent they may be with your verbal message; and 3) prepare thoughtfully for the more important occasions of communicative leadership.

Self-Management as Message Control

Since close to 70% of emotional meaning is conveyed nonverbally, and since much of that occurs outside the scope of our conscious control, there is good reason to pay attention to what is on our face and in our voice. From research in interpersonal neurobiology (Iacoboni, 2008), we now know that when we perceive others to be expressing emotions, the parts of our brain associated with those emotions are activated, even if we are not expressing them ourselves - they're called "mirror neurons".

We are "hard-wired" to connect with other people, but the affective tone and meaning of that connection is not predetermined; it is mediated by what we see. And what we see is a function of what others express overtly, the situational context in which it occurs, our affective state of mind, and the dispositional tendencies we bring to reading and relating to others. Here we see the convergence of biological, psychosocial, and personality determinants.

On the one hand, given this mediated mechanism for reading and responding to others, both the expresser and the observer face a more complex challenge in ensuring communicative clarity and adaptive patterns of connecting and coordinating their work. On the other hand, it is precisely because of the complexity of our brain and mind that we have the freedom and flexibility to communicate purposively, to create robust relationships of trust, and to form constructive and mutually supportive bonds of adaptive action and change.

To close in a way that makes this all much simpler, consider this: When we are self-aware of our quirks and tendencies, those that can create confusion, and when we are comfortable acknowledging them, they are much less likely to get in our way. In fact, when we own them naturally and with good humor, we usually project even more sincerity and authenticity. And others are likely to follow suit!

Contact Information

As usual, we hope you found this short article a helpful stimulus for considering your own development interests and those of others whom you may be in a position to support and encourage. We are happy to discuss your questions. You can reach the author by phone at 401.885.1631 or by email at bill.macaux@generativityllc.com. Thank you.

References Cited:

Iacoboni, Marco (2008). Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect With Others. New York: Picador.

A note: Our immediate interpretation of others' behavior occurs quickly, sometimes almost automatically, because it is informed by precognitive processes of mind. Ironically, this is because we are "hard-wired" to understand others (Iacoboni, 2008) in virtue of special "smart cells" in our brains called mirror neurons. But these immediate intuitive reads, which usually serve us well, are not always accurate.

Uskul, A., Paulmann, S., & Weick, M. (2016). Social Power and Recognition of Emotional Prosody: High Power Is Associated With Lower Recognition Accuracy Than Low Power. Emotion, Vol 16(1), Feb 2016, 11-15.