Recently an issue has come up several times in my coaching conversations that got me thinking about the importance of facial expression to effective leadership. Now, you may be thinking, what does your face have to do with leading? But, hear me out.

One client shared how he is not a natural “smiler.” His stoic nature is part cultural and part personality, he explained. Coming from a proud and well-off African heritage, his mannerisms tend to be reserved and almost regal, and his personality is such that, as he describes, he has “no patience for foolishness or incompetence.” So, what people often see, is a straightforward and impassive demeanor when they approach him.

The other client is a friendly and talkative guy who gets along well with his team members, peers, and superiors. What he has noticed about himself is that he maintains a friendly, affable expression even when he is having a tough conversation with someone.

While you may meet both of these men and see very different personalities and demeanors, what they both have in common is that they are hard to read. Their facial expressions and way of relating to someone do not necessarily match the message they are intending to send. My stoic client wants to be promoted and wants to take on larger managerial roles. The feedback he has received, however, is that he does not take criticism well and is too aloof. Certainly receiving feedback well is just as important as giving effective feedback. He admits that when he receives constructive feedback, he remains calm, listens, and does not react. His expressionless, emotionless response is likely being interpreted as disagreement, lack of caring, or resistance. He says he socializes with people in the office, but takes awhile to warm up to people.

My affable client finds that he is not getting the response and sense of urgency from his direct reports that he would like to see. In our conversation, he realized that his friendly, smiling approach to giving constructive feedback made it difficult for others to get the full sense of gravity and importance of the situation.

To address this issue of being hard to read, both men are working on being more flexible and varied in their expression and manner. They are learning to notice the alignment between their facial expression, body language, and intended message/tone. The stoic client is practicing engaging people in light conversation, looking for opportunities to smile, laugh, and show his easygoing side. The affable client is focusing on shifting his energy and demeanor in conversations and being OK with giving negative feedback. By being clear about the importance of a given task or issue when speaking with others, he is able to change his tone and expression to one that reflects what he wants to achieve.

There is plenty of research that demonstrates that well over half of face-to-face communication is everything other than the words we are speaking. Body language, including facial expression, sends signals and information to the people we are interacting with. The more aware a leader is about their expressions, gestures, and tone, the better they can build a strong presence and effective relationships.

What does your facial expression tend to convey? How can you develop a more flexible and adaptive body language?
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