The Body Language of Collaboration (and how it makes Monkeys of us all)

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The ability to establish collaboration as a leader is truly critical. With it you can get people to contribute to and endorse an effective vision, plan together to deliver that vision successfully and get individuals behind it with committed action. So, why is it that, given its crucial place in business and leadership, most teams seem to be plagued, as this article suggests, by internal power struggles, self-preservation instincts and a lack of unified goals?

A huge amount of perceived collaboration comes from micro-gestures and non-verbal communication (see the work of Pauk Eckman on emotion and expression). Think how quickly you judge whether you like a person you’re meeting for the first time. It happens almost instantaneously, and is imbued with our biases, but it forms a fundamental part of how we perceive people. Similarly, think how quickly you decide whether or not to trust someone. Counter-intuitively, it does not take many experiences spread over time. It’s usually a snap judgment made in the first minute or so. A great contributor to that judgement is the amount and quality of a non-verbal cue such as eye contact.

Paying attention to the non-verbal cues you’re giving will allow you to control the impact you have on others. The article I mentioned at the start cites four good practices to adopt when interacting 1:1 or in meetings / a group.

  1. Focus your body and eye contact to look like you’re listening
  2. Encourage open communication using suitable head movements
  3. Be aware of physical barriers
  4. Smile to strengthen relatedness.

These behaviours would seem to be common sense, but many of the people I see professionally – at all levels within some huge organisations – practice them poorly. And it has a significant impact on collaboration.

A while ago I was coaching a very successful business executive; highly intelligent and good interpersonally. However, I observed quickly that when she talked to me she averted her gaze over my left shoulder, and looked into the middle distance. I asked what she thought the impact of this behavior might be when she was interacting with people. The response came back that it could look uninterested, aloof, superior or distracted. She knew what she was doing and explained that it was because she was thinking hard about what she was saying. However, she was not aware of the subconscious impact this habit could have with others. A great example of where we can be putting others off with a subliminal message that’s outside our awareness.

Dr Susan Mineka’s work on monkeys’ fear of snakes could help to explain the reason why lack of collaboration can spread and become systemic. She demonstrated that wild-reared monkeys are terrified of snakes and go berserk when they’re shown a live snake. Lab-reared monkeys are not at all afraid of snakes and show no such behaviour. On the other hand, making a lab-reared monkey afraid of snakes for the rest of its life is a very simple process. All it takes is to show them other monkeys being scared by snakes. This “imprints” them with the fear forever. Humans can exhibit something similar. It goes by the name of “observational learning”.

Here’s an illustration. You go to a meeting where the agenda is intended to be positive, creative and empowering. However, the body language, facial expressions and non-verbal communication is unengaged (dissonant). See how quickly the participants form these impressions: “They don’t care about this”, “They don’t want to work together with us”, or “ Why should I bother?”. Then see how quickly this contaminates the body language of others and how that language becomes reserved, defensive and de-energised. You can see at once the link with the behaviours of those wild-reared and lab-reared monkeys.

Taking control and being aware of our message is crucial to i) building collaboration and ii) giving purpose, identity, responsibility to others and the energy you need to get the most important things done. Make sure that others observe you demonstrating these positive behaviours. They’ll start demonstrating them too!

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