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Why leaders should scowl

(MoneyWatch) A woman I work with was recently delivering a bad work evaluation to someone, with me in the room. She made one of the most common mistakes in leadership: She smiled as she uttered the tough-to-hear message. It was one of those learning moments that come too rarely, so I quietly snapped an iPhone photo of her, midsentence. Later, I showed it to her, and her comment was: "Wow, it looks like I was having a great time." (She wasn't.)

If you learn nothing else from leadership communication, learn this: Make your words and your nonverbals consistent. Simply put, scowl when you deliver unhappy news.

Here's the problem. Many people use their words to convey one message, and their nonverbals (facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, etc.) to signal what they think of the person they're talking to. This was what happened in the meeting. The message was: "Your work quality needs to improve." The relational message was: "I like you, and I'd like to work with you to solve the problem."

But put yourself on the receiving end of this message collision. You're confused, perhaps baffled. Is this person enjoying ripping me apart? What a jerk!

A great example of what happens when words and nonverbal clash went viral a few months back (thanks to Joe Weisenthal for bringing it to my attention).

It's worth watching carefully, even twice. Notice that the contestant who told the other what to do was met with disbelief. He sent a message that he's going to do something awful to the other person, and yet says it with an easy smile. If you watch the video with the sound turned off, you might think the speaker was inviting the other to a party.

Freeze frame on the reaction, and you'll see the confusion that results when words and nonverbals contradict. It passes by so fast that it's easy to miss. The listener is bewildered, unsure of what to make of what he's hearing. It makes no sense.

What happens next is a marvel of the human brain. Possible scenarios fly through the listener's mind, each attempting to bring order to this chaos of messages. Did he misunderstand what the person said? Is this a joke? Is the person crazy? In the end, it's not clear which label he has applied to the other, but likely ones are "odd," "fake," "mean," or "weird."

If we understand the problem, the solution is easy: We're sending two messages at the same time. The cure: Communicate one message at a time, and do so with absolute conviction.

If you really want to assess yourself here, record yourself in meetings or on the phone. (Make sure you let others know, or do whatever else is required to follow the law.) Listen to it later. Even without video, you can tell if you were smiling or scowling from the tone in your voice. Most people will catch at least one message that came out mangled, when their words and their nonverbals crashed. Generally, the mangled message is what they think of their listener. "Good to meet you" comes with a frown. The mangled message may have been: "I respect you, and am honored to meet you." But the seriousness of this expression is easily read as: "I would rather get audited than meet you." The person can't know what you were thinking, and is left to make sense of the communication train wreck. So you get stuck with "aloof," "distant," or "boring" as a label that may remain stuck on you for life with this person.

Another common leadership disaster is: "We've had a tough quarter," said with a smile. The message that was mangled was: "I have confidence that we can do better next quarter -- we've overcome tougher problems than this." But without ESP, the listener may think your smile communicates something else, like: "I dislike happy things like good earnings, and puppies." Far better to say (with a frown): "I have some bad news," and let your confidence come through your nonverbals when you say, "We've overcome worse than this, and we'll do so again." One message at a time.

Leadership communication centers on sending a consistent message. Get it wrong and people dislike you, mistrust you, think you're weird, and definitely will not follow you.

Have you ever sent a message with your words and another with your nonverbals? Or been on the receiving end of it? If so, I hope you'll add a comment about it below.

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