Resolving the Five Common Nonverbal Communication Issues in the Workplace

By Lisa Newman

t’s confession time. I really don’t know if these are the five most common nonverbal communication issues in the workplace. There may very well be some statistics, anecdotal evidence, or empirical studies on this topic, but I am not aware of them. Instead, I wanted to talk about experiences I have encountered in my over two decades of working in a variety of office environments.

When I am engaged in conversation, people can usually surmise from the tone of my voice, my facial expressions, and a whole host of other nonverbal cues how I am feeling at that moment. They know if I am content, tired, angry, or excited. And, if they are unaware of my feelings, they can ask me right at that moment. Email communication doesn’t afford us this immediate luxury. The recipient of your email cannot tell with any degree of certainty whether you intended the last sentence in your email to be a helpful suggestion or a thinly disguised dig. How many times have you interpreted something written in an email in a different manner than what the sender intended? Unfortunately, instead of asking the sender what he or she meant by the statement, we assume our conclusion is correct. This misunderstanding can then mushroom into larger problems. The onus is on the email writer to convey the message clearly and without ambiguity. The writer should also consider whether the subject is one that would more appropriately be discussed in person.

This is an example of a poorly conceived email:
“Ms. Johnson requested this information at the beginning of the week. Please tell me why she has NOT received the documentation?”

This email was sent by a supervisor to members of his team. Typing the word “not” in all capital letters comes across as accusatory and as if the supervisor is a parent chastising his child for not doing chores. The supervisor’s error was compounded by the fact some members of the team included on the distribution list did submit the requested documentation.

This is another example of a poorly conceived email:

To ensure coverage from the Education department for both day and evening students please note the new hours. I realize that most of you are on vacation and possibly will not read this until you return so the first week (July 7th – 11th) will give you time to make any necessary adjustments.

A supervisor sent this email out to members of her team while they were out on the two-week summer break. The supervisor implemented a significant mandatory schedule change that affected each team member. This kind of information should have been conveyed during a staff meeting after the team members returned from vacation. Using all capital letters and bold formatting to type “Effective Immediately” gave the team members the impression that the change was not subject to discussion.

SOLUTION: Before you send an email, consider: (1) how it might be misinterpreted by the recipient(s); (2) how your use of special text formatting such as capital letters affects the tone of your message; (3) whether you have included recipients on the distribution list who should not have been included; and (4) whether it is more appropriate to address the subject in person.

I have worked for supervisors whose offices felt more difficult to get into than Fort Knox. No matter the time of day, each time I passed by, it seemed as though their office doors were always closed. Only the few select people in the office who knew the secret password and knock were granted entry. Okay, so the whole cloak and danger reference is a bit of hyperbole. But when I see a closed office, my first thought is that the person is unavailable. Either she is out of the office. Or, if she is in her office, I should not disturb her because she’s working on an important report, or on an important conference call, or speaking with some important person… or just occupied with someone or something more important than me. Whether intentional or not, a constantly closed office door signals to would-be visitors, “Please leave me alone because I’m busy and I really don’t want to be bothered now.” I tend to think that closed doors equal lost opportunities because you never know what you may be missing out on.

SOLUTION: If it is not absolutely necessary to close your door for privacy reasons, keep it open or slightly ajar. If you need quiet uninterrupted time to work on a project and you need to keep the door closed, post a sign on your door stating you are working on a time-sensitive project and asking visitors to come by later in the day. As a supervisor, you will be amazed at the kind of pulse you will have on what is happening with your employees and in your workplace by doing something as simple as keeping your door open.

I subscribe to the belief that time is one of the most precious resources we have. How we choose to use (or misuse) it, in many ways, speaks to how we define the priorities in our lives and how we show respect for others. In the context of workplace meetings, the issue of time is often a clear indicator of our position in the office hierarchy. Behavior that is acceptable for individuals in higher levels of management is practically unthinkable for rank-and-file workers. It begs the question of whose time should be viewed as more valuable. I’ve had supervisors call a last-minute “emergency” meeting with little advance notice only to cancel the meeting at the very last minute. One supervisor called a meeting for 1:00. The team members gathered in the meeting room and waited 15 minutes for him. When someone went to check his office, he wasn’t there. After another 10 minutes, I was fed up and went back to my office. At 2:30, he sent us an email stating he missed the meeting because lunch took longer than expected. The irony was that this was the same person who insisted that we all be on time for the meeting.

SOLUTION: As a supervisor, demonstrate that you respect others’ time by giving them advance notice of meetings, if possible. Unless it is a true emergency, don’t expect your team members to stop what they are working on at the drop of a hat to attend a hastily called meeting. Your team members are not your personal assistants whose job it is to be at your beckon call. If you need to cancel a meeting, give as much notice as possible. And, certainly, start and end your meeting on time. Later, in the final module of this seminar, we’ll discuss office meeting protocol. Suffice it to say, however, when you value the time of your team members, they will return the favor.

Sometimes silence isn’t golden. You sent an important email three hours ago to your colleague requesting information about a new account. You flagged the email as urgent and still no response. You know your colleague is in the office because you rode up with her on the elevator this morning. When you went by her office earlier, though, the door was closed. After another half hour goes by, you call her extension, which goes straight to voicemail. You leave a message. Now you’re panicking. Did she get your original email and didn’t have time to respond? Or, did she never get your email in which case you should send it again? Here’s another classic example of workplace silence that can be equally frustrating… you handed a project proposal you’d worked on for the last two weeks to your supervisor. It’s been four days, and you’ve yet to receive any feedback. Does that mean he hasn’t read it? Or, does that mean he read it, thinks it’s terrible, and is putting off hurting your feelings as long as possible? These are the kinds of problems that can arise when one person’s expectations of communication are met with the other person’s unresponsiveness.

SOLUTION: This is easy… acknowledge your voice mails and your emails. If you are unable to provide an answer at that time, let the person know that you have received the message and will follow up with him or her by the end of the day/week. In not responding at all, you compel the other person to play a kind of excruciating guessing game.

I worked for a manager who liked to touch her team members. I’m not talking about giving people high-fives or congratulatory hand slaps. That would have been okay with me. I’m talking about coming up behind me while I am at my workstation and greeting me by squeezing my shoulders. Somewhat instinctively, I drew myself away from her touch. It’s not that I thought she had some contagious disease transmittable by touch. It’s simply that I reserve certain kinds of touching for friends and family. We all have our own personal boundaries and we become uncomfortable when others enter that space without first asking permission. I wondered if my manager would have greeted my male colleagues in the same manner. On the other hand, I have a friend at work who, every morning when he comes in, greets me with a hug. I’m okay with that because we are friends. I think the issue of touching becomes more sensitive when the touching, even if meant innocently, is not welcome and occurs between a superior and his or her subordinate.

In his email newsletter article entitled Intimidation Tactics: Touching, author and corporate coach Rick Brenner writes that unless the toucher and the person being touched are close friends, the act of touching may amount to intimidation. He explained this is particularly the case when: (1) the toucher is male and the person being touched is female; (2) the toucher has relatively more organizational power; (3) the toucher is standing and the person being touched is seated; or (4) the toucher is physically larger than the person being touched.

SOLUTION: As a manager, it is probably wise not to touch your subordinates in ways other than those that are commonly accepted in the workplace — handshakes, high fives, and hand slaps. A touch you intend to be an innocent gesture of appreciation or otherwise may be interpreted by the other person as a form of intimidation or, worse, sexual harassment. In interacting with your peers, unless you are close friends with the person, it is best to keep your hands to yourself.

In closing, when you think about it, 90% of most nonverbal communication issues in the workplace could be avoided altogether if everyone commits to observing the Golden Rule. Happy working!

Copyright © 2010 MARIGOLD CONSULTING. All rights reserved.

About the author

Lisa M. Newman is the Founder and CEO/President of Marigold Consulting in Atlanta, GA. Marigold Consulting offers snooze-proof training experiences to individuals in all settings who want to bloom out of proportion personally and professionally. Marigold partners with session attendees to foster a comfortable and productive learning environment in which extraordinary ideas are birthed, practical solutions to everyday challenges are discovered, and raucous laughter is encouraged. To learn more about Marigold’s services or to schedule a session for your group, please visit [].


Categories: Opinion


Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.