Museum Leaders and What You Say When You’re Not Talking

body language

I work with a team of people in a much larger organization. In four years we’ve had three directors–a long-tenured person who retired, a two-year interim, and our current director. One consequence of all this change is that many of us were asked to stretch and take on new tasks. This hasn’t made everyone happy and sadly that displeasure is sometimes demonstrated in non-verbal ways.

If you’re a museum leader, perhaps you’ve experienced eye rolling, chair turning or arm crossing. Or their slightly happier cousins, nodding, literally leaning in, interrupting or fist pumping. If these aren’t signs you recognize either you have a wildly healthy and compatible staff or you’re missing the cues of workplace body language. And as if your leadership radar isn’t already nearing overload, you not only need to be conscious of staff body language, but your own as well.

This year a portion of our staff worked with a member of the drama department. The hope was that with his help we would deliver a particular project in a more engaging way. I think it worked. We were better at what we did in the obvious ways like voice, tone, content, but we were also more conscious of our audience, of what I now know business psychologists call power posing. What’s that, you ask? It involves where you sit or stand. And with a classroom of 15-year olds, perhaps the most judgmental individuals on the planet, this matters. In your world this may mean thinking about where you sit when staff come to your office. Do you move out from behind your desk and sit opposite one another? Do you speak to staff with your arms by your sides–as opposed to crossing them over your chest? Do you lower your voice?

Lest you think this is just woo-woo armchair psychology, know that studies show that nonverbal communication carries between 65 and 95-percent more impact than the words we carefully parse. So the next time an employee is red in the face and turned away in his chair, “listen” to what you are seeing as carefully as you listen to him telling you he’s fine. If you are a staff person, there is another set of cues: direct eye contact, smiling, confident handshake and believe it or not that slightly Victorian idea that you shouldn’t sprawl. Sit up and act like you want to be there. And if you’re in your museum’s education department or you do a lot of public speaking for your organization, review how you behave in front of a group.

So as we head into the holiday season with its round of parties and hoopla, have a great time, but be mindful of your non-verbal clues.

Joan Baldwin



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