“You’re sharpening stones, walking on coals
To improve your business acumen…”
— R.E.M. (“Exhuming McCarthy”)
Look at me. Eyes right here. Watch my face, my arms and my hands as I talk. In fact, watch my entire physical demeanor. What does it tell you?
Now, imagine that you’re on your way to a job interview. The grueling commute of only inching along has take its toll on your already fragile job-searching soul and you take a deep breath when you finally park.
You enter the building and the interviewer escorts you to the interview room. You’re asked to sit and the interview begins.
It’s then you notice the interviewer’s facial expressions changing rapidly – happy, sad, angry, surprised, confused – over and over again.
“You do know why you’re here, right?” the interview asks, hands fidgeting and doing a tabletop dance.
“Yes,” you answer. What’s wrong with this person, you think.
“If you were a bicycle, what part of the bike would you be and why?” the interviewer asks.
Are you for real?
“Well, I’d be the gear shift, so I could help my team and the company be agile in a such an ever-changing—”
The interviewer interrupts and slams both fists onto the table and shouts, “Why do you want this job?!?”
You actually jump in your seat. Anger flashes off and on the interviewer’s face like a series of poorly lit red-eye stills.
The interviewer, with arms now crossed, eyes rolling, speaks again, “It’s a business imperative that you understand the difference between right and wrong and all things in between.”
“Um … okay?” you say.
You squirm in your seat but keep your line of sight focused on the interviewer, fighting with your face not to betray your confusion and fear.
“We all know the difference and meet our business objectives every single day. We really do. But we need to ensure you can do the same,” the interviewer says, arms outstretched and palms up.
You nod and twiddle your thumbs. The interviewer gives you a “thumbs-up,” then just sits stone-faced at the table in front of you, waiting for you to respond.
You choose your words carefully, your confident gaze never wavering from the interviewer, your hands clasped together in front of you on the table.
“I do understand the difference,” you say.
Sure this is a nonsensical scenario, but I’ll bet some of you have experienced your share of bizarre workplace encounters. Plus, we’re always in workplace situations where body language and facial expressions contribute greatly to the “now” of you, and the other person, in the moment.
In fact, we’ve actually been reading each other’s outward appearance and disposition for thousands of years, or at least trying to, in order to discern what we should do next in these contexts:
- To Befriend
- To Berate
- To Educate
- To Elevate
- To Hire
- To Kill (in case of emergency)
Yes, a brutal oversimplification, but it’s even more complicated with the micro-expression nuance that science has tried to explain in recent decades. For example, how Ekman and Friesen introduced the notion of “micro-affect displays” in a 1969 article in Psychiatry, but it wasn’t an extensive study and this subject has been mostly ignored.
Except, of course, the hundreds of millions of dollars that governments have dumped into the study of body language and facial expressions to uncover spies and terrorists, with some success, but also a big waste of money when it comes to “reading” passengers at airports, according to one expert referenced in an Economist article. Also in 2013, the U.S. General Accountability Office “deemed facial cues worthless as a way of detecting people with bad intentions in airports” according to a New York Magazine article.
Closer to workplace home, however, there are those who are applying the science of reading “face” to screening and hiring. For example, Dan Hill, a facial coding expert, was hired by the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team to read faces. This includes the faces of college prospects and NBA players in order to determine if they have the right emotional attributes that will give the Bucks the competitive edge.
In the New York Times article linked above, Dan Hill states that our faces betray our true emotions and can predict our even truer “intentions, decisions and actions.” He uses the psychologist Paul Ekman’s widely accepted FACS, or Facial Action Coding System (I referenced Ekman above about “micro-affect” displays). The FACS is used to decipher “which of the 43 muscles in the face are working at any moment.” This includes seven core emotions: happiness, surprise, contempt, disgust, sadness, anger and fear.
But there’s an entire litany of researchers and experts who warn that reading too much from body language and facial expressions is dangerous and misleading; too many liars are too good at being bad without anyone “seeing” it. Many of you in HR and recruiting have experienced hiring “train wrecks” time and again to know how unfortunately true this is. And many of you have interviewed with HR and recruiting train wrecks.
What is clear is that individuals not only need to be aware of those around them and be able to read body and face in context, they also need to be self-aware enough to manage their own emotional reactions to the reading.
In other words, you need to be able to be flexible and fluid enough in your speech and physical reactions to what happens around you, in the workplace and the “homeplace,” to convey honest conviction, confidence and definitive decision-making without betraying your fears or discontent. That doesn’t mean you don’t betray some in the name of personable transparency, but again, it’s all about clarity of context.
Deborah Thomas-Nininger, founder of DTN Productions, a training company specializing in business etiquette and reputation management, expressed on the TalentCulture #TChat Show that body language conveys everything from confidence to approachability; it’s more honest than the spoken word. Literally in the blink of an eye, we can make someone feel quite valued or unceremoniously dismissed.
That’s why developing our softer skills is today’s differentiator and managing our “emotional intelligence” is so critical in the workplace (and the homeplace). This is the body language business and the now of you, so manage it well.
Unless you’re one of the liars too good at being bad; in that case, keep your hands and face to yourself.
About the Author: Kevin W. Grossman co-founded and co-hosts the highly popular weekly TalentCulture #TChat Show with Meghan M. Biro. He’s also currently the Product Marketing Director for Total Talent Acquisition products at PeopleFluent.