Boardrooms and body language

Attitudes and feelings are communicated better by conscious and unconscious movements cum gestures than by words. Body language is regarded as nonverbal communication expressed through physical behaviour.

This comprises facial expressions, gestures such as touch, spatial relationships, postures and tones, essentially.

The interpretation of body language is indeed a field of study, known as Kinesics. Haptics studies touch as a concept while Proxemics deals with spatial relationships. Some actions enjoy universal application, while others are interpreted in accordance with religious or cultural norms. What is anathema in one setting may well be acceptable in another. 

A lot of information is passed through interpersonal interactions. In the Boardroom, many negotiations, innovations and decisions occur. It is therefore useful to be able to decode specific emotions. This is an art, which can be honed through experience.

The Boardroom usually houses a large table with chairs arranged around it to sit as few as 8 people or as many as 30. Global best practice recommends Board sizes of that range, depending on the strength or nature of the business.

A door is strategically located, as well as a refreshment corner where participants can help themselves to beverages and snacks or canapes, as they are referred to in modern parlance. It is not unusual to have projectors as part of the fixtures in the room.

The Chairman’s seat is normally a reserved one while the Chief Executive and the Corporate Secretary sit on either side of the Primus lnterpares, for ease of communication. All other Directors and attendees enjoy a relatively free style of sitting.

The first thing that can be observed by a Company Secretary, who should be the first person to take his seat in the Boardroom, is the gait of others as they enter the place. A smart or moderate pace would herald the Chairman’s presence especially if he expects a smooth session.

The Managing Director’s position has been separated from that of the Chairman in most businesses in line with global best practice, with the former being the head of Management.

The level of confidence radiated by the Chief Executive as he steps into the room depends on how rosy the operating results to be tabled are, how sincere the proposals he intends to present are, how well his team has handled matters arising from the last sitting, micro and macro-economic indices and even socio-political realities.

A worried man will go in with slow steps which might suggest pensiveness, or rapid steps that could signify anxiety cum agitation, if not aggression.

One can imagine the mood at the first meeting of many Boards after the massive devaluation of the Naira in June 2016 or the announcement of the results of the November 2016 Presidential Elections in the United States of America. When the pump price of petrol goes up in Nigeria, the tension in the air gets so thick, you can cut though it with a knife.

Heads are not held too high by Executive Directors when coming in to acknowledge such a development, except for those in the Oil & Gas sector or related industries. On average, the state of mind of Non-Executive Directors as they approach the conference room would be a function of things concerning that company, as well as other issues.

The exchange of pleasantries before the session is either called to order or brought to a close, ranging from eye contact, to a smile or a frown, a warm handshake or a pat on the back, are all very significant.

Touch can indicate so many emotions such as anger, fear, disgust, gratitude and sympathy, depending on the duration cum intensity. It is regarded as the most developed sense at birth. A Board member is relaxed with persons he feels he can trust.

If a man vehemently opposed the appointment (or promotion) of someone to the Board, the latter is unlikely to be anxious to hug the former at their first joint sitting. The information may come through the Minutes or other sources. It is for this reason that people are sometimes excused from deliberations that affect them personally.  

The sitting arrangement at a meeting, equally says a lot about the level of camaraderie that exists within a Board of Directors. Where seats are left vacant between people, it is a sign of relative hostility or distrust. In a friendly setting, people not only sit close to one another, they exchange light banter occasionally, to enliven the atmosphere. This is particularly true for companies that have existed for decades and boast of stable Board composition.

The main business of the day is usually the evaluation of the operating results, whether audited or unaudited, an assessment of the prevailing challenges and a critical examination of the way forward. In all these issues, the Managing Director remains under the spotlight. If his shoulders droop, it is a sign of lack of confidence.

If he avoids eye contact in answering questions, weakness or deceit may be inferred. Clenched hands indicate anger or stress. When a person wriggles his hands, he is certainly nervous. The same goes for fidgeting or touching one’s face needlessly.

All these actions tend to show how well the Management has performed. Has Turnover greatly exceeded expectations, have Management Expenses wiped out Shareholders’ funds, are Debtors’ Balances out of control or Creditors threatening to wind up the company? Depending on the answers, you might notice the Chief Executive sweating in a fully airconditioned room.

He might have to take off his jacket or unbutton it, based on how uncomfortable he feels. You can also be sure that the Finance Director or Controller would not fare better, in such a situation.

The reaction of the other Directors to the facts presented come in a variety of ways. Where people lean forward to hear the speaker better, it is likely to be the effect of a good delivery, that engendered keenness. An applause or a nod certainly means kudos! A frown is the last thing a Chief Executive wants to see on the faces of the other Directors but the broader the smile, the better.

A Managing Director’s day is made if he gets a pat on the back as the other Directors depart from the Conference room. In all these scenarios, the prevailing tones, breathing patterns and head postures tell stories too.

The manner of speaking says a lot, whether it is by shouting, through caustic or sarcastic remarks or ironic expressions. I should not forget to add that when a meeting has gone well, the refreshment corner will bear evidence of that fact, by the end of the session.

Irrespective of cultural differences, a seasoned Corporate Secretary should be able to do a good job of interpreting body language. The phenomenon adds to the process of communication. A Board Meeting is often a power packed forum. Eye contact occurs 60% to 70% of the time spent deliberating. Shallow breathing at such sessions suggests tension.

A good “deal” will be secured, by anyone that avoids appearing like a five-year-old who forgot her lines at a school nativity performance, due to stage fright.

Hello readers, you don’t get a cue in the Boardroom. Try elsewhere! Till next time, stay confident.

• Mrs Fagbure lives in Lagos.;

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