Current Events - Week 6 - Communication

The Power of Nonverbal Communication

As a professor at the MIT Media Lab, Alex "Sandy" Pentland naturally knows how to take a quantitative and technological approach to research questions.

But when Dr. Pentland and his colleagues began applying technological tools to a question of human behavior — how people use nonverbal communication cues — the results were startling. And powerfully instructive for managers.

Many of Dr. Pentland's findings — based on data from a device he calls a "sociometer," a wearable, badgelike contraption that can continuously measure various nonverbal aspects of people's interactions — have implications for both how executives communicate and how they understand what is being communicated to them.

He spoke with MIT Sloan Management Review senior editor Martha E. Mangelsdorf for the Business Insight Journal Report.
The Journal Report
[The Journal Report: Business Insight]

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BUSINESS INSIGHT: In your new book, "Honest Signals," you discuss a number of unconscious, nonverbal ways that humans communicate with one another. Let's talk about four you focus on: activity, interest, mimicry and consistency.

DR. PENTLAND: These signals are really qualitative readings of brain state. Take activity. Everyone has an autonomic nervous system; it's the oldest part of your nervous system, the fight-or-flight part. When you get excited about something, it gets aroused. What happens then is you become more active and you have more nervous energy. So I built computer tools that can read how much nervous energy you have.

Similarly, as a measure of interest, people pay attention to each other, and you can read that from the timing between people who are in conversation. If two people are talking together and each one is anticipating when the other will pause and jumping in exactly at that point and leaving no gaps, then they're paying a great deal of attention to each other.

Humans also have a system called a mirror neuron system. Strangely enough, when you watch somebody move, a part of your brain that corresponds to the same movement lights up. And when people mimic each other's gestures when in conversation, research has shown that it's very definitely correlated with feelings of trust and empathy. Mimicry creates the sense that people are on the same page.

And the final one I focused on was fluency, or consistency. Think of Tiger Woods and his golf swing. There's a sort of fluidity about it that just says, "This guy's an expert." And people have the ability to read that. Consistency in tone or motion tells you who really knows what they're doing, or is really practiced at it, at least. And that's another sort of honest signal; it's very hard to fake.
[Business Insight: In Collaboration With MITSloan Management Review] Sam Ogden

Alex "Sandy" Pentland

That's the point about honest signals: They're hard to fake and they tell you something important about the relationship and the activity you're doing with this other person.

BUSINESS INSIGHT: Tell us about the results of some of your studies using sociometer data.

DR. PENTLAND: We began to do things like look at job interviews. We found that if job candidates show confidence and practice, if they're mirroring the interviewer's gestures, if they're active and helpful, if they act the right way, they'll get the thumbs up.

The experiment that I like the best is one where we looked at people who were pitching business plans. These were midcareer executives who were presenting real business plans for a business-plan competition and then rating each other. It turns out you can estimate their ratings of each other…just by listening to their tone of voice. You didn't have to know anything about the business plan; you didn't have to know anything about the executives. It was how they delivered the plan that determined how it was rated. That's pretty amazing. Because these were not fools. These were executives in their mid-30s — very successful. And yet they were listening to how excited the presenter was about the plan; they were not listening to the facts.

BUSINESS INSIGHT: Sounds like, based on that research, it must be very easy for businesses to choose plans that really aren't very good but that have champions who are very charismatic.

DR PENTLAND: Yes. This research tells you a couple of things. One is: When you listen to a business plan pitch, you ought to take it offline and read it also, and not just go from the presenter's "elevator pitch." But there's a good side to it, too. In venture capital, one of the things investors pay attention to is the buzz in the start-up group and the way it feels. And what the venture capitalists are actually doing, I think, is reading the honest signaling.

BUSINESS INSIGHT: What do you think are some of the implications of this research for business?

DR. PENTLAND: It turns out that those sort of unconscious signaling behaviors are enormously important in determining the functioning of an organization. In organizations, most of the communication that's complicated, that's really important, still happens face-to-face. Some of it happens over the telephone, but it's person-to-person; it's not by email, it's not by memo. And yet all of that face-to-face stuff never makes it into the digital record. There may be a memo summarizing a meeting later, or an agenda, but what actually happened never shows up. And all the interactions in the hall or around the water cooler are not even in the org chart. And yet that's where everything happens.

There's this old phrase, "You can't manage what you can't measure." So a great deal of the important information in every organization is not measured and not managed. That seems very wrong. We're out to fix that.

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