Leadership and Nonverbal Communication

Fine Tune Your Leadership and Non-Verbal Communication

As an effective leader, non-verbal communication is key. Leaders should try to use their voice in a way that excites people and creates the right mood for both themselves as well as others around them.

Today, project management is focusing more on the human element of organizational change management.  Fundamentally, PMI is placing a greater emphasis on leadership and communication.  In fact, leadership is one of three components making up PMI’s project manager competency model known as the PMI Talent Triangle®.  In fact, the word ‘manager’ is starting to develop a negative connotation.  For that reason, I believe in 10 years, we will be called project leaders and not project managers. 

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Non-Verbal Communication is Key

I think it is safe to say communication is an essential part of leadership.  And, depending on the study, the non-verbal aspect of communication makes up to 93% of how a message is understood.  This indicates the actual words themselves make up a mere 7% of our understanding!  So, now we have established just how important non-verbal communication is, let’s talk about proxemics.  Proxemics relates to the behaviors of individuals caused by their immediate surroundings and is a critical component of the non-verbal communication process.  This holds especially true in superior (project manager) to subordinate (team member) relationships.

So, now all the scientific mumbo-jumbo is out of the way, let’s understand how proxemics can inadvertently affect your business relationships.  Before we begin, ask yourself this question.  How often do you really think about the spatial aspects of non-verbal behavior?  Typically, the answer is ‘not very’.  Therefore, subconsciously or inadvertently; we may have exuded more power than we should have in numerous situations.  This, in turn, could have produced unintended consequences and even affected our relationships with team members.

It’s important to remember that non-verbal communication is key when leading. Non-verbal cues within communication are vital in communicating and analyzing the moods of others, which can help you lead them more smoothly or identify if there’s something wrong with their environment that needs to be addressed quickly.

Perceived Power of the Project Manager

Ponder the difference in the physical space between most PM’s and their project team.  While most project managers I consult with have their own offices, many of their team members don’t.  Instead, their teammates usually reside in a cubicle.

The project manager’s office is often filled with belongings, pictures, trinkets and monitors set as they desire.  The additional chairs in their office for team members are not necessarily the same as the business chair the PM sits in.  Additionally, the PM’s personal space (approximately 4 feet) is protected by a desk which operates as a barrier between you and your guests.  With this in mind, it’s easy to comprehend why simply having an office provides more perceived power and protection for the PM. 

Now think about this. If a team member needs to enter the PM’s office (even if they phoned or emailed ahead of time), they usually ask permission to physically enter your office (perhaps with a faint knock on the side of the open doorway).  They will wait patiently for the PM to grant them access.  Subconsciously, the project manager feels safe because he or she can deny permission based on a variety of factors and feels some sense of control, while the team member feels less important and more vulnerable. This can create an interesting, yet unfavorable reaction.

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Space and Privacy Limitations of Team Members

iStock-1035518406Now, let’s take a look at the other side of this coin.  Most team members residing in cubicles are lucky if they have 25 square feet of space to call their own.  Additionally, there is no escaping the noisy neighbors who also reside uncomfortably close to them on all four sides.  Usually, they do not have enough room to create a comfortable workspace.  If they use 2 or more monitors, they take up a great deal of real estate.  For decor, they may have a couple of pictures of loved ones or perhaps a few stick-figure drawings from their kids.  Often, they have one or two filing cabinets they occasionally bang their knees on because they are a bit too close for comfort.  And, perhaps most important, they have very limited privacy with nothing to protect their back. 

Let’s assume a PM needs to speak with a team member, ad-hoc, in the spur of the moment.  As the PM walks to the teammate’s cubicle unannounced, they do not need permission to access the cubicle.  Instead, more often than not, the teammate has no idea the PM has arrived until they are right behind them, having already invaded their personal space, and in full view of their business.  Even if the PM calls ahead of time, he or she is in the cubicle when they arrive by default.  Additionally, the PM is standing over the person and may even physically touch them without permission which can be imposing.  Furthermore, the PM may rest their hands on the cubicle’s walls, boxing them in.  These actions can lead to the teammate feeling vulnerable, nervous, trapped, anxious, and even angry.

How to Level the Playing Field

So what can we do to mitigate the sometimes unwanted power PM’s wield with proxemics?

First, you can attempt to make your office more accessible.  Begin by telling your team they are welcome to enter your office unannounced if the door is open.  Another useful strategy is to move from behind your desk to its side to engage in conversation.  If possible, sit in a similar chair to promote healthy conversation.  This reduces the natural authoritative presence you exude while sitting behind your desk.  Finally, if possible, don’t clutter your desk with your elbows, arms or outstretched legs.  People may perceive these spatial actions as intimidating, even if that’s not your intent.

Second, we need to be extra sensitive when approaching our teammates who reside in cubicles.  Upon arrival, try to remain at least 4 feet away if possible (give them their 4 feet of personal space until you are invited in).  Once they have acknowledged you, ask them if it is a good time to come in and talk.  This gives your teammates some semblance of control.  If possible, pull up a chair (remember you are standing over them) for the conversation.  Avoid looking immediately at their computer screen or what they are working on.  Respect their privacy.  Additionally, when and if you need to see their work, after invited in, acknowledge and apologize for being in their personal space.  This acknowledgement often leads to increased comfort and trust because the teammate believes you care.  This is can prove to be essential because trust is the foundation for building solid relationships, improving leadership, and creating high-performance teams.

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Erin Aldridge, PMP, PMI-ACP, & CSPO
Director of Product Development at
Erin Aldridge, PMP, PMI-ACP, & CSPO