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Nonverbal communication is often a hot topic in the popular management press, but management scholars lag behind in exploring this important form of communication. A deeper understanding of non-verbal behaviour in organizations would help researchers develop evidence-based tools, which managers can use to address a host of workplace challenges, argue Silvia Bonaccio, Jane O’Reilly, Sharon O’Sullivan, and François Chiocchio of the Telfer School. An article they published in the Journal of Management, entitled "Nonverbal Behavior and Communication in the Workplace: A Review and an Agenda for Research", is intended as a guide for academic researchers, but is also potentially of interest to anyone wanting to navigate what we know about nonverbal behaviour.

Producing meaning across nearly every aspect of organizational life, nonverbal behaviour by one researcher’s estimate fuels between 65% and 93% of all human interaction. The American anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir called nonverbal communication “an elaborate secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and used by all.” Even the extent to which people use nonverbal behaviors intentionally or strategically is an open question. While leaders are coached on mastering body language, a significant part of communication from non-verbal cues is likely beyond anyone’s control.

The authors call for research that identifies how tacit notions about emotional expression contribute to (or impede) accurate attributions. Training programs could then be designed to enhance individuals’ tacit understanding of nonverbal behaviour broadly, rather than focusing on explicit nonverbal behaviours. This idea has implications for both personnel selection and performance appraisal.

Another promising area is mitigating interpersonal conflict and discrimination. It would be valuable to better understand the role of nonverbal behaviour in this, and also to use this knowledge to improve training programs focused on civility and respect in the workplace, according to the article.

A third area is to enhance leaders’ nonverbal communication across cultures and contexts. Because people have different expectations about the use of various nonverbal cues when communicating, a better recognition of these differences will have implications in terms of developing charismatic leaders – and how followers respond to them.

These are just a few reasons why organizational scholars should be encouraged to develop a deeper understanding of how nonverbal behavior influences the social world of organizations, the researchers write.


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