If a stranger approaches you in the street, a scowl on his face, eyes lidded, hands curled into fists, you don’t wait to hear what he has to say, you skedaddle out of there as fast as you can. If you happen to wait to hear what he has to say, and without changing his expression he says, “You’re the nicest person,” you don’t believe a word of it. You hear his words as a threat, not a compliment.
Why? Because body language is always believed over words. This is a necessary survival skill, a throwback from when the wolf came charging out of the forest. It was unhealthy to stick around to find out if the wolf was merely playing. Better run first!
It’s no different in the workplace. For example: your new hire has been goofing off, and you have to give them a poor review. Wanting to sweeten the pill, you smile as you give them the bad news. Your employee is in a pickle. If your employee believes the smile, he or she will think you’re not serious about your rebuke, and will continue to goof off. Or, as is more likely, your employee sees the smile, but hears a message that doesn’t go with the smile, your employee will be confused and not trust what you say—even if he or she no longer goofs off. And trust is paramount to good worker-employer relationships.
Be congruent. If you’re happy about something, smile. If you’re not, don’t. There’s nothing wrong with a frown accompanying a “please don’t goof off any more” message. Same thing when you say “We’re going through a rough patch” or “Sales have been down.” Don’t attempt to liven things up by smiling through these messages! Certainly, when you get to the “I have faith in our department’s ability to weather the storm” part, or the “I know we can get sales up” part, a smile is appropriate.
Be aware of what your body says. Body language always trumps words, whether in the wilds of nature, or the wilds of your business.