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Oct 15, 2014
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Subra Tangirala

BODY LANGUAGE, OTHER NONVERBAL CUES INFLUENCE EMPLOYEES’ WILLINGNESS TO VOICE ALTERNATE VIEWS

By Subra Tangirala

Envision a project meeting where your coworker’s upbeat demeanor relaxes and emboldens you to interject a divergent viewpoint that alters your team’s groupthink. The momentum is energizing. The next morning you arise more eager than the previous day to tackle the next set of challenges.

But imagine the same work session when your coworker appears reserved — almost sullen. Instead of a creative focus on the project, you might read the nonverbal cues and wonder: “Is there a problem? Is there a distraction from home? Is it the team? Is it my behavior?”

Working with several colleagues, I investigated how workplace mood — especially that of high status coworkers — can influence whether or not employees voice ideas or suggestions that challenge a team’s direction or philosophy.

In one experimental study, we examined how part-time MBAs from two China universities responded to different scenarios presented to them. In these scenarios, we asked the participants to place themselves in the shoes of an employee who discovers relevant information from outside engineers during a firm’s solar power system design project. The new information suggests the company would be better served by a different approach than the one being championed by the team.

Not surprisingly, when coworkers displayed a positive mood, participants felt more psychologically safe to speak up and reported greater willingness to advocate against the course of action taken by their team.

Moreover, the participants were especially influenced by their coworkers’ mood when the coworkers had higher status in the team or when the participants felt that they did not have pre-existing relationships with such coworkers. We replicated these results in a second study that involved a survey of 155 bank employees. 

A simple but vital lesson for leaders in any workplace is to be aware of how they appear to their employees, including when not speaking  — whether in the conference room or one-to-one in an office setting.

You might be vigilant about watching your manners around your employees and consistently soliciting their input and feedback. But that’s not enough. Your facial expressions during silence could be daunting — especially if you appear grim and distant.

It is very human to look for nonverbal cues before speaking out about something in the workplace. This especially is the case when you have a neutral to poor relationship with your colleague or when your colleague possesses a higher status than you in the team (e.g., due to seniority or rank). This effect is heightened by the recent recession, which has fueled job insecurity across industries.

Your mood can influence your team members to be reserved, a function of a survival instinct or thinking that keeping quiet and just going with the flow is the safest way to advance your career. In this environment, ideas remain dormant and then die. Your facial expression can be the key to facilitating a candid exchange of ideas under your leadership. 

Subra Tangirala, PhD, is an associate professor of management and organizationat the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business.


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“How and When Peers’ Positive Mood Influences Employees’ Voice” is accepted for publication by the Journal of Applied Psychology. In addition to Tangirala, authors include Wu Liu, Wing Lam and Rongwen Tina Jia  from Hong Kong Polytechnic University; and Ziguang Chen from City University of Hong Kong.