He Leads-She Leads: Gender Plays Big Role in the Body Language of Leaders

There are two sets of signals that followers look for in their leaders: warmth (empathy, likability, caring) and authority (power, credibility, status). As an executive coach, I have helped many leaders of both sexes who do not fit the stereotypes. I’ve also observed that gender differences in body language most often do align with these two groupings. Women are usually the champions in warmth and empathy, but men display more power and authority cues.

There are situations in which your leader’s current nonverbal behavior is very effective—and other situations where they could benefit by having the flexibility to change the signals they are sending. (Often men’s body language, instead of conveying confidence and competence, is perceived as cold and uncaring; women may undermine their authority by unknowingly using deference and submission signals.) Here are some tips on how to alter, accommodate or modify your leader’s body language to help him or her be more effective.

If your leader is a woman seeking to project authority and credibility:

• Keep the voice down. Women’s voices often rise at the ends of sentences as if they’re asking a question or asking for approval. When stating an opinion, the leader should use the authoritative arc, in which the voice starts on one note, rises in pitch through the sentence and drops back down at the end.

Claim space. Females can compensate for men’s larger and taller stature by standing straight, broadening their stance, spreading out their paperwork and even putting their hands on their hips in order to take up more physical space. I’ve also advised women to stand when presenting their ideas, rather than staying seated at a conference table. This gives a height and nonverbal status advantage.

Smile selectively. Although smiling can be a powerful and positive nonverbal cue—especially for signaling likability and friendliness—women should be aware that when excessive or inappropriate, smiling can also confuse people and compromise credibility.

Watch the hands. Everyone uses self-pacifying gestures when under stress. People rub their hands together, grab their upper arms, touch their necks and so on. Because these can be distracting, their overuse by either sex lessens the appearance of authority and confidence. But, as a woman particularly, you will be viewed as much less powerful if you self-pacify with girlish behaviors (twirling hair, playing with jewelry, or biting a finger).

Curb the enthusiasm. Women who express the entire spectrum of emotions often overwhelm their audience (especially if the audience is composed primarily of males). So in situations where you want to maximize authority, minimize movements. When leaders appear calm and contained, they look more powerful.

Speak up. In negotiations, men talk more than women and interrupt more frequently. One perspective on the value of speaking up comes from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who—when asked what advice she had for up-and-coming professional women—replied, ‘‘Learn to interrupt.’’

Straighten the head. Head tilting is a positive signal that someone is interested and involved—and a particularly feminine gesture. But head tilting is also a universal sign of acquiescence and submission.

Employ a firm handshake. Even more than is the case for your male colleagues, your confidence and credibility will be judged by the firmness of your handshake.

Keep your eyes in the business zone. If you create an imaginary triangle with a base at eye level and an apex at mid-forehead, you will have mapped out the ‘‘business gaze.’’ When you keep your focus in that area, you nonverbally signal a no-nonsense, businesslike approach. But when you move your focus from the eyes to the mouth, you turn your gaze into one that is more flirta- tious and more appropriate for social encounters.

If your leader is a man seeking to project more warmth and empathy:

Try a little tenderness. A man’s ability to hold his emotions in check is viewed as an advantage in business negotiations. But that doesn’t mean that men shouldn’t allow their feelings to show in other business situations. Whether your leader is promoting collaboration, building employee enthusiasm for a new corporate direction or addressing the negative consequences of a major change, showing emotion is not only a good thing: it is a powerful leadership strategy.

Look at people when they speak. The amount of eye contact a leader gives is especially telling if reserved only for those whose opinion they agree with. Women often cite a lack of eye contact as evidence that their male boss ‘‘doesn’t value my input.’’

Stop solving problems. Men’s discomfort dealing with emotion (and their brain’s innate response to it) leads them to immediately search for solutions, rather than understanding that sometimes people just need to be heard.

Lighten up. Men need to monitor their facial expressions, especially those that come across as intimidating, overpowering or deliberately forbidding. Such visual power cues are certainly useful in some situations, but just as certainly not useful in others. The problem is, hard looks can become habitual in all business dealings without realizing it. Once your leader becomes aware of that habit, however, he can begin to modify his facial expressions to suit the situation.


This article is excerpted from the book The Silent Language of Leaders by Carol Kinsey Goman (Jossey-Bass, 2011). Goman, a business coach and change management strategist, can be reached at cgoman@ckg.com.