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The power games of smiling at work

By Vanessa Ko for CNN
October 29, 2012 -- Updated 0256 GMT (1056 HKT)
Smile like you mean it, or just at those who aren't more senior than you.
Smile like you mean it, or just at those who aren't more senior than you.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • People in a low-power position tended to mimic the smile of a person with high status, says a new study
  • Employees can be more conscious of their body language in order to give off the proper signals
  • Smiling, although helpful in giving others a more positive mindset, can backfire in the workplace

(CNN) -- If you find yourself giving off a sunnier disposition when your boss is smiling, it might be because your brain is wired to do so.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), found that people in a low-power position tended to mimic the smile of a person with high status. The study's results, which are still unpublished, were presented earlier this month at the annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans.

On the other hand, people who feel powerful return smiles of lower status individuals but refrain from smiling back to others in a high-status position.

"Mimicry has been shown to help build relationships, and both power and status seem to affect how we unconsciously employ this strategy," Evan Carr, the lead researcher, said in the presentation materials.

Participants' facial responses were detected as minuscule, unconscious movements of facial muscles fractions of a second after being shown videos of people of varying social status.

All 55 subjects in the study mimicked frowns of people they were told were high-status individuals, like doctors, more than those from low-status jobs like fast-food workers.

When you smile inappropriately, it robs you of credibility. This is particularly true for females.
Carol Kinsey Goman

Carol Kinsey Goman, author of "The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work," who is not affiliated with the study, said humans are wired from birth to mimic the facial expressions and body language of others, and subordinates are more prone to this type of behavior of submission.

"Subordinates will smile more, they'll nod more, they'll tilt their heads more, which is a kind of universal sign of listening," she said.

In line with the UCSD study's findings, Goman said these responses come naturally.

"You really don't realize it's so imbedded in your circuitry, and thank goodness it is. If we had to think about every response, we would lose our minds — there's just too much going on," she said.

The implication of studies like these is that employees can be more conscious of their body language in order to give off the proper signals in specific situations.

"Learning what these cues mean, to use it to make a point you want to make, is where body language is helpful," Goman said.

For example, a boss could present an idea more convincingly by standing taller, because it adds an air of power and authority.

But smiling, although helpful in giving others a more positive mindset, can backfire.

"When you smile inappropriately, it robs you of credibility," said Goman. "This is particularly true for females." An example of this would be smiling while delivering bad news in order to soften the blow. Instead of making a difficult situation better, the executive would instead confuse the situation.

Most people neglect to think about the effect their body language can have in the workplace, but leaders are highly in tune with this part of their demeanor and hire coaches like Goman to improve both verbal and nonverbal communication skills.

Goman says that watching the U.S. presidential campaigns, she can tell that the candidates' coaches have told them to do something different with their body language for each of the three debates.

"People at the top, politicians, top executives, they pretty much get this," she said, adding that they have a "great understanding that it's not what you say but how you look what you say it and the tone of voice to use."

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