Make sure non-verbal, verbal cues are consistent

"I must give you a 'poor' on your performance rating this quarter, because you were late on 20 percent of your deadlines," a manager told a subordinate.

Although the subordinate did not like to receive such bad news, she was more upset because the manager was smiling throughout his statement.


In a research study by Jeanne Unruh, Paul Jennings and myself, soon to be published in the Journal of Business Communication, 50 percent of employees surveyed said they were frustrated because of inconsistent verbal and non-verbal messages from their managers.

When employees receive inconsistent messages, they tend to believe the non-verbal. Facial expressions, in particular, when they contradict what we say, overpower verbal messages.


Common examples of inconsistencies between verbal and non-verbal messages include: deadpan expressions during congratulations, frowns while delivering good news, eyes looking downward when expressing concern, blank expressions during any communication, staring out the window when speaking.

For more effective communication, managers ought to strive to make their non-verbal cues consistent with their verbal messages. Specifically, managers should:

* Become more aware of the importance of their non-verbal signals. Managers often pay special attention to how they are going to say something, and they ignore the facial and voice tone implications on the meaning of their message.

* Make more eye contact. As a respondent commented, "I have a hard time believing my manager when he looks down at the papers on his desk when he is telling me something."

* Smile and frown appropriately. If you are saying something positive, let your face show it. If you are upset or angry, do not try to hide it. Rather allow your eyes, face, and voice tone to reflect your anger or your approval.

* Avoid blank expressions. A blank look from a manager appears to be one of the most frustrating and intimidating non-verbal cues subordinates can receive.

Because contradictory verbal and non-verbal messages cause frustration and distrust, such inconsistencies hurt performance and morale.

Giving cues


Circle the appropriate letter (A or B) in each of the following statements. Most employees believe that:

1. Non-verbal facial cues are (A-more, B-less) important than verbal messages.

2. They (A-do, B-do not) receive inconsistent verbal and non-verbal messages from their managers.

3. (A-females, B-males) are better at reading non-verbal cues.

4. (A-verbal, B-non-verbal) signals more accurately communicated the manager's true intentions.

5. The (A-eyes, B-mouth) are/is the most accurate source of non-verbal information.


6. It is easier to read non-verbal expressions from (A-males, B-females).

7. Effective managers (A-do, B-do not) communicate their feelings with non-verbal signals.

Our research suggests the following answers as correct: 1-A, 2-A, 3-A, 4-B 5-B, 6-B, and 7-A.