Body language in the workplace

Recently, a client asked me to create a workshop on body language awareness as part of a wider ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiative. The idea was that making people more aware of each other’s non-verbal signals would help to promote respect in the workplace. At first I wasn’t sure if I was the right person, but the client convinced me: “Start with the body language stuff you do in your communication coaching and take it from there – you just need to get people talking.”

Having now run dozens of these workshops in a culturally diverse, UK based organisation, I’ve gained some fascinating insights into the etiquette of the modern workplace. The feedback has at times been humbling, like the self-confessed cynic who said, “I only came along because I had to, but actually this was the most valuable session I’ve attended in years.”

So what have I learned? In the absence of any defined rules of engagement, there is clearly a lot of confusion about non-verbal communication at work. At different extremes, some people are totally unaware of how their behaviour could cause offence, while others are so frightened of getting it wrong they avoid personal contact wherever possible. In today’s diverse workplaces, colleagues are increasingly confused about how to relate to each other.

Take for example something as simple as a standard business greeting. As part of the workshop, I ask everyone to greet each other with a handshake. Then we discuss the experience. As you would expect, people talk about firmness of grip and whether or not someone looks you in the eye when shaking your hand. But what happens when men and women greet each other? From a cultural point of view, some colleagues will not want to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex for religious reasons (e.g. Orthodox Jews, Muslims). It is important to be aware of this to avoid potential embarrassment; a handshake should never be forced. Yet cultural differences aside, some men when shaking a woman’s hand will opt for a brief grasp of the fingers, as if they are about to go down on one knee in a chivalric bow.

Why does this happen? The men who did this told me that it was because they felt that ‘women’s hands are more delicate’. So I would then ask the women how they wanted men to shake their hands. Invariably the answer was in the same way as a man – properly but without excessive force. Interestingly, some women said they often avoided shaking another woman’s hand because it did not feel ‘natural’ to do so. Unless they know the other woman well, they would usually avoid physical contact and simply greet each other with a smile and a nod. In some cases, this has resulted in women course participants resolving that in future, they would make a point of shaking hands with other women.

Eye contact is another fascinating subject. The Western cultural norm is to look at someone when you are listening to them. Yet there are many parts of the world e.g. parts of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, where it is considered disrespectful to do so, particularly when listening to an elder. One participant who was brought up in Nigeria described having been severely reprimanded by his grandfather for exactly this reason. Yet when he came to the UK, he realized that his ‘respectful’ avoidance of eye contact was not helping him in job interviews. Getting people to share their personal experiences in this way has led to many ‘light bulb’ moments.

By far the best experiences have been running the workshop on location for a whole team. Managers have told me that experiencing the workshop together was a bonding experience that enabled team members to discuss office behavior in a non-threatening way, when previously it had been in the ‘too difficult’ category. For example, it enabled a manager to talk to a team member about their habit of getting too close to people and why some people found this invasive of their personal space. (It turned out that the ‘space invader’ in question had hearing difficulties.) I’ve even been asked to run follow up sessions so that the people who missed the original training didn’t feel left out. How often does that happen for workplace training?

Everyone can dance says Ashley Banjo

IMG_5905This post was originally written as a ‘live blog postcard from the beach’ in my role as beach writer at The Purple Beach Experience 2015.

Only 26 years old, Ashley Banjo has already achieved more than he could have dreamed of, but something tells you that this intelligent, thoughtful and modest young man has a very long way to go. With his positive outlook and disciplined approach to life, he gives the impression that he can achieve any goal that he sets himself.

Before his dance troupe Diversity discovered fame on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, Ashley was already taking responsibility for others. When the Executive Producer asked them to go on the show, Ashley felt the weight of trust from the boys in the group and that his job as a leader was “to steer them in the right direction”. Ashley didn’t expect to win, but simply wanted the group to be “the best we could be”. The rest is popular TV history, with Diversity beating that year’s other phenomenal act, Susan Boyle, (who had already made it onto ‘The Simpsons’!) to win the competition

The group’s first reaction was disbelief – you could see it in their faces. As they later faced a frenzied media conference of 300 people, they realised that “life was about to change forever, and they had to choose whether to embrace it or be destroyed by it.”

Coming to terms with their achievement, Ashley has since reflected that “the public are much cleverer than people give them credit for in voting shows: we were real and public responded to that.”

So how has Diversity become such a highly innovative dance troupe? “I don’t believe concepts are just from me, we still train together 6 hours a day… we store information, like bits of a puzzle in the air – someone learned a new flip, seeing something in a movie e.g. the ‘slow motion dodge’ in ‘The Matrix’. Then we put things together because everyone unites.”

Ashley tends to be at the front of the group’s creativity and knows what everyone in the group is physically capable of, but he describes Diversity as “one big think tank”: “ no matter how many ideas I come up with, the relationship with the group is the key to our creativity, I bring an idea to the table, everyone brings their experience to bring the idea to fruition” Ashley’s mantra is “be open, be honest, take on everyone’s opinion.”

The idea for ‘Secret Street Crew’ came about when Ashley told a TV producer about his belief that ‘anyone can dance’ and to give him a TV series to prove it. The idea of the show is to get people to form a street crew in secret and perform at an event, one of the best examples being a wheelchair basketball team – “Of course they can dance if they want to!”

In describing his coaching method, Ashley says he does not teach, but “gives people the ability to believe in themselves that they can do it, to harness what they have already got.” The show is all about breaking down people’s perceptions of what they think they are capable of and where they belong. “Its about me unlocking someone’s mind a bit – giving someone the confidence to believe in themselves. Breaking down barriers in people’s minds about what they actually can do – its about self belief.”

Ashley sees dance as a “further level of communication”. While describing himself as a very controlled direct person, when he dances, he believes “anything is possible.”

Although not the original leader of Diversity, he naturally became the leader due to his increasing interest in dance and choreography, based on his ambition “to be the best he can be”. As a result, his group members “started to look to me for the answers.”

Ashley also discovered financial responsibility early. At the age of 14, his mother, who ran a dance studio, damaged her knee, which meant that Ashley’s life from that point, including his choice of University (he studied Natural Sciences at UCL) revolved around the need to get home to teach the 5pm dance class.

His biggest challenges in recent years have been to maintain the trust and respect of the group, understanding that this means sometimes having to keep his distance from his best friends to “preserve trust in the interests of the bigger picture.” This gets harder as inevitably team members get older, get married have kids and have their own responsibilities. For Ashley, success is based in legacy; for people in twenty years time to know what they have done.

Commenting on his experience as a judge on “Got to Dance”, Ashley explains how he encourages people to see their so-called ‘failures’ as “steps on the root to success.”

By his own admission, Ashley is intensely critical of his own team’s performance and group members are surprised if he has no critical comments after a routine. He motivates himself by “watching mistakes over and over again”, shuddering to recall when dancer Perry fell on his head in front of the Prime Minister, but got up the next day and did the same performance perfectly.

So what does the future hold? Ashley’s view is pragmatic, to “react to what happens”. Diversity still has “whole new countries to explore” and that is very exciting.

Ashley’s overall philosophy is that “so long as each step is in right direction, we don’t have to look at the final destination… if someone had told me at 15 what I was going to achieve I would have said no way, never in a million years. It’s not about blind belief, but knowing you can achieve something if you want it.”

– See more at: http://www.purplebeach.com/pBexp2015Postcards/viewBlog/8/Everyone-can-dance-says-Ashley-Banjo#sthash.YxbUlKgi.dpuf