Nonverbal Cues Get Employees to Open Up — or Shut Down


Studies on power posing show that intentionally adjusting your body posture, facial expressions, and voice can help you express your ideas and concerns and win greater influence. This is true no matter what title or position you hold. Simply comporting yourself as if you’re a rung or two higher makes people act more deferentially toward you. Often, they’re not fully aware that they’re responding this way, yet the effect is in full force in any kind of hierarchy, whether it’s based on formal or informal status.

What’s more, unintentional power cues have a similar effect. After about 15 years of studying why people do or don’t speak up to those in charge, we’ve seen, in case after case, that leaders send “I’m the boss” signals without realizing it — and those signals prevent others from coming to them with new ideas. Though many leaders seek honest communication from their employees and some take great pains to demonstrate how open they are to feedback, their looming presence is at odds with their good intentions. But it’s not hopeless. Becoming more aware of power cues and making small adjustments can make people more comfortable approaching you.

To illustrate this dynamic in a health care setting, where people tend to feel vulnerable, we borrowed a doctor’s office and took three photos of a “patient” and “doctor” (both actors, the “doctor” wearing a white lab coat and a stethoscope). In the first picture, both people were seated at the same level, appearing to have a typical doctor-patient conversation. In the second, the doctor’s chair was about 12 inches higher so that he was looking down on the patient. And in the third, the patient was up on the examination table, looking down on the doctor.

Everything else was held constant. We then randomly assigned participants to view one of the photos and imagine that they were the patient in this scenario: After what felt like a dismissive basic examination for your stomach problem, the doctor says you’re worried about nothing and is about to end the exam. But you’re still convinced there is something more going on.

Participants then answered a couple of questions about how they would feel about speaking up. When the patient was either at (image 1) or above (image 3) the doctor’s eye level, respondents reported moderate intimidation. But when the doctor was seated at a higher level, they reported a significantly higher degree of intimidation — nearly one point higher on a seven-point scale.

Of course, power signals go well beyond how you stand or sit. Keeping your arms at your side (rather than crossing them in front of you), lowering your voice, dressing less formally, and even smiling can make people more likely to share their thoughts with you. So can behavioral cues, such as sitting at the same tables as everyone else at lunch and not being the first to articulate a point of view at meetings.

Physical environment matters, too. One manager we interviewed, the director of a state social service agency, was initially given an office with very dark walls and big wooden furniture. She found that it set a dreary, somewhat intimidating tone for meetings with employees. So, she quickly changed the paint color and bought a small round table. She soon had more employees coming to her office for quick check-ins and to share ideas for improvement.

Sometimes getting out of your office altogether is the best way to create trust and make people feel more relaxed — and more inclined to engage in honest conversation. The president of one credit union hosts monthly “Lunch with the Prez” meals at local restaurants, using the off-site activity as an opportunity to get to know a handful of people better and to hear about their experiences at work. In a Fortune 500 insurance company, senior leaders visit call centers on Friday afternoons to host informal “cookie chats” with employees two to five levels below them. That’s when the call volume is the lowest. It’s the most convenient time for reps to share their thoughts and concerns about that week’s calls. And the conversation is on their turf, where they’re most comfortable opening up.

As all these examples show, small power cues send big messages, so you need to manage them deliberately to promote open expression. In return, you’ll get better ideas from your employees, not to mention greater engagement and loyalty.

This article was co-authored by James R. Detert, professor of management at Cornell University&;s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. 


Reprinted with permission. This HBR blog was originally published on December 11, 2015 at
Copyright 2015 by Harvard Business Publishing; all rights reserved.



The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

About The Author

Ethan Burris

Associate Professor of Management, McCombs School of Business

Dr. Ethan Burris is an Associate Professor of Management and the Thomas E. & Terry Smith...

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