Chapter 3 - Effective Nonverbal Change Management

The chapter opens with an anecdote about a senior executive who seemed straightforward and fully supportive of a corporate reorganization - but she resigned a few weeks later. The author, having observed her nonverbal communication, thought that it was obvious: while she was playing the part of the good corporate soldier, she sent strong nonverbal signals of disengagement.

Change management is critical in the modern business environment. The period during which companies carry on "business as usual" is shorter now than ever in history, so it is critical for managers to be supportive of change.

Having the ability to recognize when major players are not on board, even though they claim to be, is valuable to knowing where effort is needed to sell a change (or predict the defections that will inevitably occur). Having the ability to control one's own nonverbal communication is also valuable to being able to convince others of the value of change.

The Brain and Change

The notion that only certain individuals are stubborn and resistant to change is a myth: we are all resistant to change, and the human brain is wired to be that way. People take comfort and security in the familiar, and have confidence when they are asked to do things they've done before because they have positive reinforcement - any change, even one that promises to be beneficial, must compete against the natural tendency to do what is known to be effective. The proof of actual experience is always stronger than the allegations of any claim.

Aside of security, consistency is efficient: familiar activities can be done virtually "on autopilot" while the brain expends energy on other things. In the physical world, people experience frustration when things do not go as expected (consider the anger many people feel in traffic when another driver fails to obey the rules and protocols of driving). When we have to do something differently, we are annoyed because we have to pay attention, look for the unexpected, and have little certainty in our actions.

Switching channels, it's been suggested that a person who can appeal to logic is often a good leader - but to be a great leader, he must also engage his followers' emotions. Unfortunately, emotions are often treated as the enemy, and our inclination is to attempt to dismiss them rather than leveraging their power.

The author refers to Damasio's observation about logic and emotion - the way in which emotion is triggered first because it exists in the limbic system, and logic is most often used merely to validate an initial emotion reaction. Logical reasoning can reprogram the emotional reactions, but in real time emotions are engaged first and logic follows.

There is also the change schema, which governs our emotional reaction to any change. Those who have experienced positive change in the recent past are often supportive or at least unconcerned about the negative potential. Those who have experienced negative change are primed to react negatively to any new change, and are often so concerned about the possible negative repercussions that they ignore the potential.

(EN: This is where leaders need to be very circumspect about their decisions - the notion that a good leader can sell a bad idea is complete hogwash. A leader with a track record of success can more effectively promote a change than one whose past efforts have had negative consequences. They have earned a reputation as good or bad leaders by their history, such that people cannot be counted on to "forgive and forget" particularly when there is a chain of bad decisions.)

Leadership style is also considered: those who attempt to motivate change by instilling panic are essentially frightening people into accepting their ideas. While this can be very effective in the short run, people are not gullible enough to go along with it every time: they will recognize the leaders' attempt to manipulate him, distrust his honesty and his motives, and become instead resistant to change.

So while fear, anger, and disgust are highly effective in motivating a quick, short-term, and specific reaction, they are not effective in selling long-term changes that require people to think (rather than merely obey) and provide ongoing support. Since most organizational change is slow and unspecific, negative motivation is not of much help and may in fact be detrimental.

It's also mentioned that people often take their cues on how to react to an order not from the manager, but from their fellow employees. Where everyone seems excited about a change, a detractor begins to wonder if his reaction is appropriate - and where everyone seems dejected, a supporter has the same reaction. This is "emotional contagion."

A workplace experiment (Barsade 2001) gave identical assignments to different groups of employees. Some groups were seeded with employees who were told to act enthusiastic about the change, others with those who were told to act dejected about it, and a control group in which no members were prompted. Naturally, the results were that the non-prompted members of groups that were "seeded" tended to react in the same way as the actors.

Another observation is that people who are the "emotional leaders" of a group tend to aggregate power, but only in instances in which their emotional reaction was later validated by logic. Individuals who are enthusiastic about changes that later prove to be more negative than positive lose power, and are dismissed as sycophants or imbeciles by their peers.

The Body-Mind Connection

The notion that your emotional state can be altered simply by acting emotionally - smile enough and you will feel happy, pretend to be scared and you will scare yourself - is not without scientific evidence. One experiments (Davis 2000) that found individuals who held a pencil between their teeth rated cartoons as being funnier than did those in a control group. Another (Ekman 1983) that found that people who were asked to make expressions of fear and anger evidenced autonomic responses (heart rate, skin temperature, etc.) that were similar to those associated with the genuine emotions.

The author suggests that this phenomenon can be extended to influence others, particularly charisma. If you can convincingly pretend to be in a specific emotional state, others will respond accordingly because they do not really know what is going on inside your mind and can only react to the expressions, postures, gestures, and other factors that you are presenting to them. Great leaders can in this way inspire others to have confidence in them by merely pretending to have confidence in themselves.

The author suggests that, as an executive coach, she has trained people in posture, gestures, and tone in ways that project confidence and authority, and further suggests that "method acting techniques" can help people to give a convincing performance. Moreover, the feedback you receive from the audience helps kindle confidence - when others express confidence in you, you begin to gain confidence in yourself.

The author refers to Stanislavsky's method acting technique, asking an actor to recall a situation in which he had a genuine emotional reaction, and keeping that memory in mind while playing a scene in which the character must project that emotion.

The same is commonly done by people who are preparing themselves to face a difficult challenge: a person will "psyche themselves up" before giving a speech, in the same way an athlete will visualize success before entering the field of competition, to give themselves a positive mental attitude that will enable them to achieve success.

However, she does provide a word of caution: "don't try to simply suppress an emotion and think you are fooling anyone." Genuine emotions express themselves, and the body "leaks" nonverbal cues as to their true emotional state. People tend to be terrible actors, but at the same time good at detecting when someone else is putting on an act - though they may not be able to know exactly what is going on, they get the sense that another person's behavior is uncanny. (EN: And worse, a person who acts suspiciously does not merely lose confidence in that instance, but their credibility suffers long afterward. People loath deceivers and fakes.)

Announcing Change

When change occurs on a large scale, it is usually announced in a formal way: in presentations and speeches. Because change is a personal and emotional issue, the audience is often aware (or suspicious) in advance, and will be very carefully listening to the message and watching the speaker.

Under normal circumstances, audiences can be forgiving if a speaker is a little nervous at the beginning but settles into his presentation - but when they are apprehensive about what they expect to hear, this nervousness confirms their suspicion that "it's going to be bad" and make it all the more difficult to put them at ease.

The best advice: never be the one to promote a change you don't believe in. Even if you do believe in a change, do not attempt to artificially exaggerate enthusiasm - be transparent and candid, in showing your authentic level of support. Try to control nervous behaviors that are based on your assumption that the audience won't share your enthusiasm

(EN: The author does not address the situation, which often happens, when a leader is compelled to announce a change he doesn't personally support. That is a difficult situation, though I have seen a few very effective "this sucks but we will get through it" speeches - but this tactic may not be playable if the leader must announce a change his superiors support.)

Speaking on Stage

Speaking from a stage is much different than speaking to a group of people in a small meeting room or interacting with individuals casually in the office - it is understood to be a kind of performance. Body language still plays a significant role, and the author offers guidance on some of the elements of body language that are important:


The author pauses a bit on gestures, as this is a significant part of nonverbal communication:

Movement on the stage can keep the audience from becoming bored - moving toward the audience to make an important point is particularly effective. However, when you are delivering a key point, stop and widen your stance when delivering it.

Spotting Fear Responses

There's an abrupt change to speak of the fear responses: fight, flight, and freeze. Body language reflects these basic responses, though generally in a subtle way.

What Do People Want From You?

Various games and experiments illustrate the manner in which pursuing immediate personal benefit results in the loss of greater long-term benefits of cooperation.

Consider the example of a person who is asked to propose splitting a sum of money. Rationally, an individual should be guided to contrive a rationale for allocating himself a greater share than he gives away to another individual. But he must also count on the other party to accept a lesser share in order for the deal to be accepted (or for the other party to show any interest in participating in cooperative ventures in future).

A group of researchers (Sanfey 2003) used MRI scans to observe the brains of participants in such an experiment, and suggest that when a person is offered an unfair deal, their brains react with signals of disgust or anger - such that even in situations in which refusing a deal means walking away with nothing, people are inclined to do so simply because they are offended and disgusted by the other party.

The psychology of relationships commonly suggests that individuals keep a "mental ledger" of what they contribute to a relationship and what they get back for it - and when they feel that they are losing to a significant degree, they become disgusted and disengaged.

This is routinely a problem for employee retention, as companies tend to take employees for granted and shift the balance in their own favor, withholding rewards and adding to responsibilities. The employees tolerate some degree of loss, but eventually the balance exceeds their tolerance and they seek a method of escaping the relationship. (EN: In instances where there is a surplus of labor in a market, a disgusted and disengaged employee will remain for quite some time for lack of other opportunities - which is the reason that economic recovery results in exodus at many firms, even those few that attempt to make amends for their past unfairness.)

In terms of leadership, it is particularly poignant when employees are asked to compromise and sacrifice while their leaders do not - or worse, when leaders are personally rewarded for placing obligations on employees (getting a bonus for laying off workers, for example) - those who remain feel a sense of mistrust that is not easily dispelled.

The Power of Empathy

Compensation, beyond a certain point, is not motivational - and the areas in which many employees feel they have been short-changed is often merely appreciation and recognition for their efforts and sacrifices.

Particularly when changes take place, merely showing empathy can help a leader build credit: to acknowledge that employees will be asked to abandon comfortable routines, try something a built new and scary, and cope with the difficulty of making a transition all helps to demonstrate empathy and provide reassurance.

Leaders who avoid any mention of negative emotion for fear that acknowledging it will demoralize employees are completely backward: pretending that there will be little difficulty makes a leader seem callus or perhaps uninformed about the impact of the change to others, and make employees feel "cheated" out of the respect and understanding they deserve.

It's also important to anticipate and be proactive about negative consequences: once an emotion has been experienced and expressed, there is no erasing it. Attempting to make up for a debit by issuing a credit afterward is not as effective as avoiding the debit in the first place - it may have been counterbalanced, but it is still in the ledgers, and still in the memory of those who were treated with disregard and disdain.