In negotiation situations, most people analyze the body language of their counterpart to gauge their trustworthiness. But as researchers from USC recently discovered, this can be a dangerous mistake. Other factors play a much larger role.
One of the most widely discussed potential fake smiles is that of Melania Trump. In one particularly damning video, captured at her husband Donald Trump’s inauguration as President, she’s seen beaming widely at her partner. But as soon as he’s turned around, Melania suddenly looks devastated. As the entire scene occurred during a religious sermon, there’s plenty one could say about the way the interaction played out. But situations like this raise the question of the significance of facial expressions, especially the impact of a smile.
People place too much trust in facial expressions
Almost everyone knows that uncomfortable feeling before an interview, or an important negotiation: “How should I behave, and what kind of first impression will I make on my interviewer?” To make a great first impression, most people believe the secret is simply to smile… It’s thought that people who smile are considered to be trustworthy. People who struggle to curve their lips upward are considered by their counterparts to be unreliable. But a nice smile isn’t everything. It can also be deceptive, and sometimes even hurt your career.
In a study published by researchers from the University of Southern California in November 2016, they found that when it comes to assessing the trustworthiness of a colleague or business contact, the majority of people have a flawed sense of judgment.”They place a lot of trust in facial expressions when it comes to gauging the honesty of their counterpart,” it states.
In an experiment, participants were required to act as antiques dealers, and decide, in groups of two, who should get various items. The items included lamps, records and paintings, each with various assigned values. The scientists observed the dialogue of the participants, as well as their gestures and expressions – and if they mislead their partner to take advantage of them. At the same time, they also observed the expressions and energy of each participant, as compared with their actual intentions and actions. The question: Do friendly, smiling people merely give the impression of being trustworthy? Or can they actually be trusted?
The friendliest people can’t be trusted
The results are clear. Just because someone seems friendly, that doesn’t mean that he or she is telling the truth. Even smiling people often lie, or share misleading facts in order to gain an advantage in a negotiation. This study also refers to people who smile joyfully, as well as those who appear distressed. In summary, this means that managers shouldn’t place too much value in the emotions of their counterparts. It could be a good indicator, but it also might be a deterrent.
In other relationship matters, the participants of the study could trust their instincts. They could accurately guess that the more talkative participants would be less trustworthy. And in fact, the most talkative subjects were also prone to sharing falsehoods.
A smile could damage your career
Of course, managers shouldn’t judge only their counterpart in negotiations, they should also reflect on how frequently they smile at their employees, and the effect that it has. This also goes for female managers. A study conducted by the Technical University of Munich shows that “happy women” are considered to be less competent leaders. When people judge their superiors, they tend to stereotype, and they generally have traits like follow-through and strength in mind. When female managers react proudly and with a dominant manner, they’re typically considered to be stronger leaders, according the study.
Male or female, managers should avoid smiling too large, in an exaggerated fashion, according to body language expert Tatjana Strobel. “A leader must have clarity, and should embody a certain severity,” says Strobel. Strobel believes it’s very important to celebrate successes, and to bring a little humor and joy to the office. But the boss should always remain the boss, and the first responsibility is always to lead.
About the Author
Felicitas Wilke studied business and journalism and attended the Deutsche Journalistenschule. She works as a freelance journalist in Munich. She enjoys writing about topics affecting the economy and has a passion for Scandinavia. She is a keen supporter of the black and yellow football team Borussia Dortmund.