Remember, you are always communicating

John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

Last week I was at a reception for the annual Fastest Companies Awards in the Corridor, and had an interesting experience. A young, very capable woman I have worked with mentioned to me and my social director that when she met me the first thing I said was that if she continued to use tanning machines, she would surely get skin cancer. My lady later reminded me I often make such social faux pas in some situations.

By coincidence, the same day there was an article on this subject in the Wall Street Journal titled “Blush, Babble, Cringe: The Shy Social Butterfly.” Apparently, psychological research shows 95 percent of people report this happens to them (the researchers suspect the other 5 percent are probably lying) and many people are aware of the conditions that elicit this behavior. The article also suggested some self-management techniques to help avoid these mini-catastrophes. To view these and link to the original article go to

This incident brought to mind that first impressions are very powerful. Evidence shows most of us make very rapid first impression judgments about others.  If you don’t understand that these judgment bursts may be very inaccurate, it can cause problems.  Such hasty impressions can become self-fulfilling prophecies, good or bad, about others and lead to rather poor outcomes. The accuracy of my own first impressions is about 50 percent. If you consider the outcome to be binary, positive or negative, they are essentially random.

This experience also reminded me that we are always communicating. This is a particularly important insight for managers and almost all leaders understand and use this phenomenon to their advantage.

One of the most basic measures of our communications is the say/do ratio. If you are a manager, what you say and what you do are constantly being compared and used to evaluate you by your colleagues. I once interviewed a young man who was identified as a superb manager by his boss, peers and direct reports. When I asked him why this was the case, he paused for quite a long time and replied, “I try to be the same man every day.” I remember this quote exactly because it is profound in its wisdom.

There is abundant research on managing and parenting that shows behavioral consistency is essential to success in both roles. It is also an essential element of building and maintaining trust. The worst characteristic of the manager from hell is: what mood is she in today? Unpredictability makes it impossible for others, adults and children, to successfully adjust their behavior and so improve the quality of the relationship.

Effective leaders understand they live in a bubble. All those around them are constantly trying to infer their intentions and predict their actions based on behavior. Research suggests leaders have a deep intuitive understanding of who they are and use this knowledge to maximize their performance. Some time ago when Jack Welch was the CEO of GE, I worked with a GE manufacturing plant. Throughout the year, all of the key managers paid a visit to GE University at Crotonville, and somehow were invited into Jack’s bubble. I never was able to accurately discover what is was he did in those brief encounters, but the managers came back to the plant with an incredible jolt of motivation.

Consider this, place your hand on the back of your head. Underneath your hand is located your occipital cortices. These are the areas of your brain where you see. The volume of brain stuff devoted to seeing is orders of magnitude greater than that allocated to the other four senses combined. This is a dramatic demonstration of the power of visual communication. In a recent article in the Economist, it was noted that more that 97 percent of digital content on the web is visual.

It is usually the case that the written word is more rigorous in its content, that is it demands better thinking, than the spoken word.  However, pictures trump both modes of communication when it comes to eliciting emotions.

When I consider the presidents I have experienced, the two that seemed to be the very best communicators were John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Many would describe them as leaders with style; much of what they communicated was non-verbal, although both were skilled at turning a phrase or telling a story.

Remember, you are always communicating.

John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at His new book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at