Words hold phenomenal power. However, sometimes the most meaningful messages are never spoken. As a result, being able to understand body language is often the key to seeing the big picture and effectively guiding team interactions.

According to research by Dr. Leanne ten Brinke, a forensic psychologist at the UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business, we can gain immediate insight by simply watching body language as we talk to co-workers, customers or strategic partners.

While ten Brinke’s research focus on using body language to detect lies, recognizing and understanding these same context clues can help build trust between team members and ensure that people are comfortable with their project role. Specifically, facial expressions and how a person uses their hands can serve as clear cues to anxiety, uncertainty or excitement that is hard to distinguish over email, instant messaging or even an audio conference.

Whether you have one team member based in another office, or an entirely virtual workforce, it’s no excuse to give up the value of body language based clues. You simply need to bring remote participants into conversations with video conferencing.

1. Identifying and addressing anxiety. When presenting face-to-face, you get an immediate read on the reaction to the information presented. As such, if participants start to shift in their seat or redness appears in their face as ten Brinke recognized in her research, you can take the time to address their anxieties right then and there.

Managers often ask for questions or input and take the silence as an indication that there are none. But ignoring the visual cues can have significant costs in the long term. Being able to immediately address concerns that a team member may not want to bring up could alleviate frustrations or delays later in the project.

2. Building trust between team members. It takes time to establish trust within a team environment, and when teams work virtually, they build trust based on actions. It’s significantly easier to build trust when people are able to contribute in an environment where they feel comfortable. In person, you can have a discussion behind a closed door or even offsite to put your team member at ease to speak more openly about a tricky topic.

And there are ways to simulate this type of privacy in virtual meetings as well. For instance, video calls can be set up to show exactly how many video and audio participants are on the call, so you can feel safe being transparent (i.e. no one lurking in the virtual meeting room listening in). Enterprise solutions also announce when a video meeting is being recorded, so there’s little risk of the conversation being forwarded (as it could be in email or chat).

3. Recognizing and leveraging excitement. When distributed teams meet in a virtual meeting room, body language immediately informs others when one team member is excited about a certain aspect of a project. While excitement or passion does not necessarily translate to capabilities or training, it may identify areas where a team member possesses interest in learning or applying their skills further.

According to this Business Insider article, leveraging excitement can contribute positively to a team’s outcome. “Professionals who are excited create enthusiasm in their teams and with others, and are viewed as great supporters.”

This could be an excellent opportunity for a team leader to align responsibilities with areas of interest, capitalizing on unspoken interest. Or if there’s bandwidth on the team, pairing someone that has the project experience with someone else exhibiting excitement often results in a dynamic combination of capability and fuel that not only takes the assignment over the finish line but does so in innovative ways.


Of course, if body language does unearth an issue with dishonesty during a group conversation, it’s often beneficial to schedule a one-on-one meeting. Taking this approach helps to create a safer situation for honesty, and contributes significantly towards building trust. As a manager, you cannot control the actions of the people on your team, but you can clearly convey the behaviors that will be rewarded through your own actions. For example, giving kudos in a public for honesty from your team, especially when it’s uncomfortable, sends a clear message. When offering praise, watch your own body language so the reward is perceived genuine, and move forward from it in a constructive way.