How Your Facial Expressions May Be Undermining Your Leadership

We spend time selecting our LinkedIn profile picture, decorating our cubicles, and choosing the clothes we wear. But how often do we pay attention to our facial expressions? Our faces represent us, whether we want them to or not.

While an inscrutable face might make you a great poker player, it creates a problem at work when people unconsciously make up a story to explain it. This can lead people to misinterpret your intentions and, when left unchecked, can result in costly mistakes as they make decisions based on that misinterpretation. Further, people’s feelings can be hurt because they perceive a more negative meaning than you intend, and they can waste time trying to get past your facial expression to what you actually mean.

The more senior your role in an organization, the more meanings those around you might make of your facial expression or lack of it. Every twitch of your eyebrow or flare of your nostril elicits a reaction or, worse, can lead to an action in the wrong direction. Your colleagues’ attention is focused on understanding what you mean and want, protecting themselves, and seeking your approval instead of getting down to work.

When I worked in software development, I used to stack one-on-ones with my direct reports. A strange theme emerged from three of my meetings one day. One direct report asked me if I was angry at him. Another asked if she was performing ok. And a third wanted to know if a re-org was in the works. After talking with my team I realized the reason behind their queries: the day before I had been walking around with a frown on my face because of stomach cramps. Team members had taken different meanings from my facial expression–none of which were accurate.

There are several ways in which our facial expressions can interfere with accurate communication. You could be an introvert who needs time to process thoughts, so your face is inscrutable in the moment. You could unconsciously have a frown or serious expression whenever you’re thinking. Or you could be quite animated but people misconstrue your emotions because they don’t know you well or read different cultural cues.

Here are five ways to enhance your communication so people can more easily understand you:

Talk about your feelings

You can’t always rely on your facial expression to convey your emotions, so make sure to verbalize them. How else will someone know whether you’re truly excited or annoyed or if this is just your normal resting face? For example: “I’m glad that you chose this design prototype. I’m excited to hear the results of the focus group.” Or, “I’m frustrated that we’re revisiting this decision for the third time. How can we better understand what’s really making us come back repeatedly?”

Number your feelings

Even when you say you’re excited, your co-worker might not realize how excited you are. It can be helpful to say, “I’m so excited about how our event went. We hit it out of the ballpark. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m at an 11.” Conversely, if you say you’re frustrated, someone might think you’re about to blow your stack. To prevent that misunderstanding, try: “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m frustrated at about a 4 right now.” Statements like these help co-workers calibrate how you actually feel.

State your intent

At the beginning of a conversation, clarify your intent or purpose. This will help people know that you’re looking to collaborate on a solution rather than criticize their pet project. For example, “My intent is to help you shine when you present to our CEO. So during our dry run today, I will closely scrutinize everything you say and how you say it and throw curve ball questions your way.”

Connect with curiosity

Because others might hesitate to approach you when they can’t read your facial expression, take the initiative to connect with them. Make eye contact, ask questions, and display empathy. When you show interest in others, they will soon realize that you’re not scary and you genuinely care about them.

Practice a Mona Lisa face

When you’re driving by yourself or spending time alone, raise your awareness of your facial muscles. Try to relax them a bit and practice a Mona Lisa smile–not a smile from ear-to-ear but just slightly tilting up your mouth and relaxing your brow. Practice this frequently, and you might catch yourself substituting your thinking face with your Mona Lisa face from time to time in meetings.

When you invest time in your facial expressions and increase the ways you communicate your thoughts and feelings, your co-workers will be better able to understand what you truly mean and can act accurately sooner. As a bonus, they might enjoy working with you even more.

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