How body language shapes your career

How you sit, stand, shake hands and communicate plays a part in your moving up the job ladder

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The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words applies well to body language. Posture, in particular, which is an unconscious way to transmit your mood and thinking to the person or people you're talking to.

Consider what happens in job interviews. When the words you use don't match your body language, it creates a distraction and conveys to the interviewer that you could be a poor fit for that organisation.

All of us instinctively interpret body language, to a degree. But given that the human body is said to be capable of producing 700,000 different movements, according to Caroline Tosh and Dilys Hartland in Guide to Body Language, the subject is complex. Your posture and how you hold your body can reveal more about you than words.

Results from a study by eminent psychologist Dr Albert Mehrabrian suggest that up to 93 per cent of what you communicate to an interviewer comes from body language and only the remaining 7 per cent is from the literal content of what you say.

Similarly, Mark Bowden, a trainer of Fortune 50 chief executives and author of Winning Body Language, says if what you say doesn't match what your body is saying, your audience is more likely to believe your body, resulting in poor interview performance.

I once interviewed a candidate for a senior banking position here in the UAE and his posture was so stooped he couldn’t make eye contact with me. Everything about his posture said, “don’t hire me”.

People who sit up straight are more likely to be viewed as having strong leadership skills. Studies have shown as much. Conversely, those who sit hunched give the impression of being at a high risk of being easily stressed and are therefore less likely to be hired.

Woman Being Interviewed. Getty Images
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Several industry studies also confirm the importance of non-verbal communication in career success. The 2019 Global Talent Trends Report by LinkedIn, for example, states that 92 per cent of talent professionals and hiring managers agree that candidates with strong soft skills are increasingly important.

These could make or break the hiring of the otherwise perfect candidate as 89 per cent feel that “bad hires” typically have poor soft skills, and this includes body language. If you look at the 2016 Global Human Capital Trends report published by Deloitte, it found that 92 per cent of respondents rated soft skills as a critical priority for success.

A job seeker can't simply rely on an impressive resume to stand out. They need to also go beyond the spoken word to communicate that they are confident, focused and goal-oriented

In light of the current pandemic, more people around the globe are searching for new job opportunities than ever before. A recent estimate by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that the affect of Covid-19 on the workforce is 10 times bigger than the initial months of the 2008 financial crisis.

While the UAE job outlook is seeing signs of recovery, the unemployed are now faced with tighter competition due to an influx of candidates competing for the same job. This means that a job seeker can’t simply rely on an impressive resume to stand out. They need to also go beyond the spoken word to communicate that they are confident, focused and goal-oriented.

In 2016, a joint study by and YouGov measured the extent of the gap in skills in different Mena countries. Rather than a dearth of technical skills, the biggest challenge employers faced was finding candidates with good soft skills. The soft skills most lacking in this region were communication, leadership and collaboration or teamwork.

Most valued soft skills

From experience, I believe the following set of soft skills in most jobs and sectors across levels can make or break one’s career: verbal and written communication skills; critical thinking and problem solving; teamwork and collaboration – being able to get along with your colleagues; the willingness to learn, the ability to adapt to new situations and finally; discipline and time management.

Willingness to learn and adapt, in fact, are the most crucial 21st century soft skills. The impact of fast-changing technologies and disruptions across industries due to the pandemic has required people to train in new software and adapt to new ways of working. Resistance to learning and adapting to a new work environment can cause a gap in skills, which could result in being left behind.

For many, soft skills such as communication and creativity do not come naturally. But the good news is if people are willing to invest time and effort, it is possible to cultivate soft skills. It requires practice, self-monitoring and peer feedback.

What companies want

Irrespective of the job or industry, organisations are becoming less interested in technical skills and more interested in soft skills. Communication skills, for example, are undoubtedly the most important to be effective at almost any job.

To be successful at work, you need to be able to connect and communicate with people from diverse backgrounds, including people from the opposite sex, people from different cultures and people from different socio-economic backgrounds.

You need to be able to communicate clearly and courteously both verbally and in writing, being mindful of the audience’s language ability and comprehension.

Another important aspect of communication is the ability to be empathetic and to listen to what others say. Employers prefer employees who not only share their own ideas, but can also listen to others. It's crucial to pay attention, acknowledge and respond with questions and positive feedback, either verbal or through the use of body language.

Critical thinking skills are also right on top of employers' wish list. People who are able to analyse difficult situations and make informed decisions are valued and most sought-after.

Whether you are a teacher, marketing manager or a repairman, you need to be able to decode complex problems, think critically, and find solutions.

Critical thinking skills require imagination, flexibility, observation, and a willingness to learn. Critical thinkers have a natural ability to see challenges from various angles, and can adapt their next steps in light of new information.

As the world is driven by data and technology, one needs to be able to react to changes swiftly and effectively, showing the ability to scrutinise information and integrate diverse sources of knowledge in solving problems.

Critical thinking skills can be developed by assessing new information, considering the source, asking questions, conducting research and establishing a plan of action.

Besides communication skills and critical thinking, a strong work ethic is essential to having a successful career. People with a strong work ethic are more likely to be highly productive, dedicated, collaborative and accountable for their actions.

Such people often receive more opportunities because they are dependable, committed and disciplined. Those with a strong work ethic are more likely to deliver top performance, maintain strong relationships with colleagues and handle critical projects and duties that add value to their organisation.

Developing habits such as reducing distractions, setting goals, managing time, establishing a work structure – all help to create a strong work ethic. It impresses employers and colleagues alike.

Body language fluency

The same goes for body language. All of us can improve our body language. From an HR perspective, it is important in job interviews that a prospective employee not fidget too much. While nervousness is understandable, playing with your rings or biting your nails can sound alarm bells for the interviewer. It can signal a lack of self-confidence and an inability to handle high-pressure situations.

Similarly, it is about the impression created if a prospective employee is twisting and turning on the chair. An interviewer will imagine how the candidate will present themselves during critical meetings. It may look like the candidate lacks discipline and respect for others and has a low attention span.

Crossed arms is another one. Some people might do so naturally, for comfort, but during a video interview, it can signal arrogance. Crossed arms could also be interpreted as lack of openness, of being unfriendly.

It does not matter which industry or for what position one applies. There will always be things every candidate can work on to better their chances of being selected and even beyond that, to grow further in their careers.

Dr Mercedes Sheen is associate professor and academic head of psychology, Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University Dubai