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7 Body Language Mistakes that Could Hold You Back at Work

body-language-in-job-interviewFor the past two months, you’ve had your eye on that promotion. It’s between you and your colleague, and you really want the job. So you put in crazy hours, deliver top-notch work, and take on extra projects to show your work. You don’t see any reason it shouldn’t go to you.

But when the time comes for the promotion to be announced, it goes to your colleague instead. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Turns out, it may totally be unrelated to the quality and quantity of the work you churn out. Instead, it could be a factor of something far more subconscious: your body language.

Body language can have a big impact on the way you are perceived by others, especially in a professional setting. While it may seem like a silly, even unfair reason to be overlooked for opportunities at work, there are actually psychological reasons behind it that in the end make a lot of sense.

Next time you’re in the office, take a moment to stop and think about how you’re carrying and expressing yourself. Here are some red flags that may indicate your body language is becoming problematic, and ways to fix them.

  • Crossed arms.
    Crossing your arms, which many of us do out of habit, is inherently a defensive position and indicates self-protection. To your boss, however, this may come off as cynical, distrustful, and even angry. Instead, you want to stand with your arms by your side, slightly out from your body, which shows openness and confidence. To help you break the habit of automatically crossing your arms, try holding something such as a notebook during important face-to-face conversations to keep your hands occupied.
  • Smallness.
    When we’re feeling intimidated or uncertain, we tend to “shrink” ourselves, slouching and hunching our shoulders. To others, this communicates fear, powerlessness, or even laziness and lack of motivation. (Not habits of highly promotable employees!)

    The next time you notice yourself doing this in a meeting or tough conversation, be sure to sit up straight, relax your shoulders back and down, and lean slightly forward. Not only will this make you appear more assured in high-pressure situations, but you’ll begin to feel that way, too.

  • Seeming disinterested.
    When we’re feeling friendly and comfortable with the people we’re interacting with, we tend to angle our bodies toward them and subtly match their movements. Check to make sure that you’re not angled toward the door when engaged in conversation with people, which shows disinterest and distraction. Instead, subtly mirror or mimic their gestures. For example, without being too obvious, place your hands on the table if theirs are, or lean slightly back in your chair if they are doing the same. This expresses harmoniousness and alignment.
  • Nervous gestures.
    This is the oldest one in the book, but it’s still crucial. Leg jiggling, hair twirling, face touching — any motion you do when nervous or bored — indicates insecurity, which could cost you the trust you’ve built with the higher-ups. If you’re prone to hand movements, find a place for them to rest instead.
  • Eye contact.
    Your boss can tell a lot about your emotional intelligence just by the way you look at people, including how much you respect, appreciate, and are interested in them and your work. A good formula for maintaining eye contact that’s confident and certain (read: not creepy) is to hold a person’s gaze for 50 to 60 percent of the time you’re interacting with him or her.

    Think about the last conversation you had: Can you remember the color of the person’s eyes? If not, it’s probably a sign that the eye contact wasn’t sufficient. Play a game with yourself and set a goal of noticing this the next time you’re speaking with someone face-to-face. If you can master this, chances are others will perceive you as confident and sure of yourself — and therefore a competent employee worthy of a promotion.

  • Smile.
    Plain and simple, smiling allows others to feel comfortable with us, and it’s much easier to get ahead when you’re surrounded by people who like and support you. Not only that, but studies have shown that even forcing a smile will improve your mood as well. Try starting and ending all your conversations with a smile on your face; the habit will grow from there.
  • Handshake.
    The sense of touch is incredibly important for conveying rapport, and a strong handshake is one of the few ways to make use of appropriate touch in business. A good, confident handshake is neither too firm nor too light. A good rule of thumb (no pun intended) is to match the firmness of the other person’s grip. Particularly for women, don’t be afraid to shake hands often and with meaning.

In an age when face-to-face communication is becoming increasingly rare, making the most out of it is more important than ever. Understanding the value of body language — and that seemingly simple, subtle gestures can have a huge impact on how you are perceived — can make or break how you’re perceived in the workplace. And when big decisions like promotions are being evaluated, you want to be sure that you’re armed with every weapon in your professional arsenal. Start implementing these tips now for an extra boost to get to the next step.

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7 Body Language Mistakes that Could Hold You Back at Work

Melody Wilding, LMSW

Melody Wilding, LMSW is a performance coach, licensed social worker, and has a Masters from Columbia. She helps established and rising managers and executives advance in their careers. Her clients work at companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, HP, and Deloitte. She also helps entrepreneurs take bold steps to grow their businesses. Melody has helped over 10,000 smart, self-aware people like you. Her coaching gives you actionable strategies to reach your goals. You get concrete steps to overcome the complex struggles of success. Melody loves arming ambitious people with tools and tactics to boost their confidence. She can teach you skills for assertiveness and influence. Her specialties include better managing your emotions at work. Melody also teaches Human Behavior at CUNY Hunter College in NYC. She writes about psychology and careers for Inc., Forbes, Fast Company, and more. Click here and grab the FREE COURSE to go from insecure to unstoppable confidence 5 DAYS TO FREEDOM FROM SELF-DOUBT..

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APA Reference
Wilding, M. (2018). 7 Body Language Mistakes that Could Hold You Back at Work. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 28 Oct 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.