Not bad lies, however. Good lies
Troy Media – by Carol Kinsey Goman
We behave differently around individuals of higher status and power than ourselves. Without realizing it, we observe them more intently, display exaggerated interest in all they say, suspend judgments about them, nod agreement to their opinions, mimic their body postures and laugh at their worst jokes.
We do all of this automatically because we feel intimidated or pressured to try to please these powerful people. And in the workplace, our illogical (and sometimes embarrassing) displays of deference are most exaggerated when the powerful person in question is our boss.
Now, I’m a proponent of candor. I much prefer (and advise) honest and transparent communication in all professional relationships – a principle with which I’m sure all would agree. Except when the boss suddenly appears and you feel yourself slipping helplessly backwards into psychological bunker mode. At that point I advise lying.
Not bad lying, though, good lying. Because there is a critical difference: Bad lies are meant to deceive: to dodge responsibility, to gain unfair or unmerited advantage over colleagues, to shift the blame for mistakes onto others, to cover dishonest or unprofessional behavior. Bad lies are destructive – to bosses who don’t spot them, to teammates who suffer the consequences, and to the overall goals of the organization.
Good lies, on the other hand, are meant to outfox that bunker mentality so you can “be yourself” with the boss when all instincts are telling you to hide behind the water cooler; let you display your genuine competence and professionalism despite the unconscious signals that your boss may well mistake for lack of initiative and self-esteem. Good lies can be good for your career – and using them well springs directly from good body language skills.
Here are 10 ways to lie to your boss – to project confidence and credibility when you might actually feel intimidated, shy, or uncertain:
1. Examine your body language through your boss’s eyes. The impact of your nonverbal signals lies less in what you really mean by them, and more in what your boss believes you mean. For example, the fact that you cross your arms while speaking may mean that you are more comfortable that way (or that you are cold or you’re concentrating), but that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is understanding that most bosses will interpret your crossed arms as a sign of insecurity, resistance, or even deceit. Conversely, if you hold your arms at waist level, and gesture within that plane, most bosses will be perceive you as assured and credible.
2. Become a Method actor. Trying to display confidence when you’re actually feeling tentative, or trying to be perceived as upbeat and positive when (for any reason) you are feeling the opposite, is a tricky thing to pull off. But here’s a technique (adopted from Constantin Stanislavsky’s Method acting), which draws on real but past emotions: Think of an occasion where you were wholly enthused and absolutely certain about a course of action. (This doesn’t have to be taken from your professional life. What’s important is identifying the right set of emotions.) Then picture that past event clearly in your mind. Recall the feeling of certainty, of clarity of purpose – and remember or imagine how you looked and sounded as you embodied that state of mind. Recalling that genuine emotion will help you embody it as you interact with your boss.
3. Prepare for action using a power pose. Research at Harvard and Columbia Business Schools shows that simply holding your body in expansive, “high-power” poses (leaning back with hands behind the head and feet up on a desk, or standing with legs and arms stretched wide open) for as little as two minutes stimulates higher levels of testosterone – the hormone linked to power and dominance – and lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
Try this before your next meeting with the boss. In addition to causing hormonal shifts in both males and females, these poses lead to increased feelings of power and a higher tolerance for risk. The study also corroborated my observation that people are more often influenced by how they feel about you than by what you’re saying. (There’s a good article on power poses in Fast Company.)
4. Maintain steady eye contact. You may be an introvert, you may be shy, or your cultural background may have taught you that extended eye contact with a superior is not appropriate, but bosses from the U.S., Europe, and Australia (plus several other parts of the world), will expect you to maintain eye contact 50-60 per cent of the time. When you don’t – if you continually look down (which is a signal of submission) or let your eyes dart around the room – you will nonverbally indicate that you don’t want to be there, that you aren’t really committed to your message, or that you have something to hide. (Tip: To improve your eye contact, make a practice of noticing the eye color of everyone you meet.)
5. Lower your vocal pitch. When you are anxious or nervous, your vocal pitch tends to rise. Before talking with your boss, allow your voice to relax into its optimal pitch (a technique I learned from a speech therapist) by keeping your lips together and making the sounds “um hum, um hum, um hum.” And if you are a female, watch that your voice doesn’t rise at the ends of sentences as if you are asking a question or seeking approval. Instead, when stating your opinion, use the authoritative arc, in which your voice starts on one note, rises in pitch through the sentence and drops back down at the end. One word of caution: Don’t lower your volume when you lower your pitch. When you speak too softly, your boss will judge you as tentative and uncertain – even if you’re neither.
6. Take a belly breath. Stress and anxiety can cause you to tense up, breathe shallowly, and even hold your breath. You can counter this tendency by sitting with your weight “centered” – evenly distributed on both feet and sit bones. Look straight ahead with your chin level to the floor and relax your throat. Take several deep “belly” breaths. Count slowly to six as you inhale and increase the tension in your body by making fists and tensing the muscles in your arms torso and legs. As you exhale, allow your hands, arms and body to release and relax.
7. Talk with your hands. Brain imaging has shown that a region called Broca’s area, which is important for speech production, is active not only when we’re talking, but when we wave our hands. Since gesture is integrally linked to speech, gesturing as you talk can actually power up your thinking. Whenever I encourage clients to incorporate gestures into their deliveries, I consistently find that their verbal content improves. Experiment with this and you’ll find that the physical act of gesturing helps you form clearer thoughts and speak in tighter sentences with more declarative language. (Tip: An especially powerful gesture is the “steeple” – in which the tips of your fingers touch, but the palms are separated. If you find yourself fiddling with your jewelry or picking at your cuticles, try replacing that nervous gesture with a steeple.)
8. Smile. Charles Garfield, the author of Peak Performance, once coached the Russian Olympic weight-lifting team. Garfield noticed that when team members lifted to exhaustion, they would invariably grimace at the painful effort. In an experiment, he encouraged the athletes to smile when they got to that point of exhaustion. This seemingly minor difference enabled them to add 2 to 3 more reps to their performance.
No matter the task, when you grimace or frown while doing it, you are sending your brain the message, “This is really difficult. I should stop.” The brain then responds by sending stress chemicals into your bloodstream. And this creates a vicious circle: the more stressed you are, the more difficult the task becomes.
So, smile when you enter the boss’s office. A genuine smile not only stimulates your own sense of well-being, it also signals to your boss that you cooperative, and trustworthy. Smiling directly influences how other people respond to you. When you smile at someone, they almost always smile in return. (Yes, even your boss!) And, because facial expressions trigger corresponding feelings (called “facial feedback”), the smile you get back will actually change your boss’s emotional state in a positive way.
9. Dress for success. The old saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” may be true, but book jacket and product packaging designers around the world have created an industry betting that people do judge (and purchase) products based on how they look. Your boss is judging you, at least to some degree, by your appearance – your clothing and your grooming. (Research from Harvard Medical School even found that women who wear makeup are perceived as more competent than those who do not.) If you want your boss to know you as the consummate professional you really are, my advice is to dress the part!
10. Let your body speak for you. Standing tall is one way of demonstrating a high level of confidence. Another is showing your torso. The more you cover your body with folded arms, crossed legs, etc. the more it appears that you need to protect or defend yourself. Feet also send their own messages: When you stand with your feet close together, you can seem timid or hesitant. But when you widen your stance, relax your knees and center your weight in your lower body, you look more “solid” and sure of yourself.
Power and status is nonverbally displayed through height and space. If you stand you will look more powerful to those who are seated. If you move around, the additional space you take up adds to that impression. If you are sitting, you can look more assertive by putting both feet flat on the floor, widening your arms away from your body, and spreading out your belongings on the conference table and claiming more territory.
Think this is all too much to remember?
So, I’m not suggesting that you memorize “the right” physical gestures and facial expressions to display for the boss at the crucial moment like some kind of pre-programmed robot. (First, those who try to do this actually look like robots; and second you’ll want to focus most of you concentration on hearing what’s being said.) Instead, I suggest that you experiment with one idea at a time: the power pose if you want to look assertive or belly breathing if you need to calm down.
I’m also suggesting that you stay aware of how your body language dramatically impacts the impression you make on your boss. Like good manners and good grammar, body language is a tool for expressing your best self in a certain situation. And it is a highly valuable tool for all you “good” liars!
Troy Media columnist Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is a leadership communications coach and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She’s an expert contributor for The Washington Post’s “On Leadership” column, a leadership blogger on Forbes.com, a business body language columnist for “the Market” magazine, and the author of “THE SILENT LANGUAGE OF LEADERS: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead.”