We are always communicating, even when we aren’t saying anything. Sitting quietly at our desk while working intently communicates to the team “I am busy and focused”. Leaning in during a conversation and making eye contact communicates “I am invested, interested, and care about what you are saying”.

Unfortunately, not all non-verbal messages are positive or clearly communicated. Here are some of the most common negative messages portrayed in the workplace, many of which aren’t intentional.

“What is happening here doesn’t matter to me”

I was at a meeting where an employee was presenting the results of a project to a room full of peers and supervisors. The owner of the company was sitting in the front row and spent most of their time checking their cellphone. Worse yet, they were checking their Facebook page. It was a casual act that a lot of us do, but this owner failed to recognize the impact of their actions. The presenter clearly noticed that the owner wasn’t paying any attention to the presentation and the people behind the owner could see they were on Facebook. This non-verbal gave the indication that the presentation wasn’t really important. By the end of the presentation, several managers followed the owner’s lead and opened up their own phones.

“I have all the power and you should recognize that”

One of the most important, if not the most important characteristic of a high functioning team is “psychological safety”. Supervisors oftentimes and unwillingly create unsafe environments through their body language, especially in how they position themselves with an employee.

• The Office / Desk – A very common example of this is when a supervisor asks an employee to come into their office for a conversation. The supervisor often sits at a desk while the employee sits in a chair on the other side of the desk. This is a classic power position. Sometimes, this is a good message for the employee, but if they really want to have a real and open conversation, it is better for the supervisor to come out from behind the desk and meet in a place where both parties have common arrangement.

• Head of the Table – Another common supervisor power play is sitting at the head of a conference table. Again, this might have it’s reasons, but if teams are looking to have a truly collaborative meeting where everyone is more of a participant, supervisors should consider sitting in a different location.

• Standing Over Someone – A third common power position that is often used is standing over somebody. Anytime a supervisor is literally at a higher level than the employee, this is a position of power. If the conversation needs to be safe, supervisors should pull up a chair and bring themselves to a level spot with the employee.

“That was just stupid”

When a thought enters the brain, it actually passes through 3 parts of the brain. The first part is the fight or flight mechanism. The second is the emotional brain, and the last part is the logical brain. Thoughts flow in that order, and it takes time for each brain to process and decide whether or not to pass it along to the next brain. So when an employee says something in a meeting that angers a supervisor, their first two brains might keep them from acting logically.

Fortunately, people can manage their reaction. Both supervisors and employees have the ability to remain calm and refuse to lose it when a bad comment is made. However, they may tend to struggle with the initial non-verbal reaction. While verbal communication is non-existent, a face may show an immediate reaction that indicates confusion or frustration. Sometimes, this is reaction is perfectly acceptable. However, it generally sends an unintentional message. For example, imagine an employees is explaining that the expenses are higher than expected and their boss immediately reacts with frustration. The employee’s brain may quickly assume their boss is mad at them. However, the boss is actually thinking about the conversation they are going to have to have with their own boss, and they are nervous or uncertain of how it will be taken.

We won’t always be able to control all of our non verbal communication, but being aware of what we don’t say will help us to become more effective with our teams.