How to use your body to improve your performance

We all know that body language reveals a lot about people’s thoughts. That’s why we try to manage our own body language so it sends the signals we want, and observe the body language of others for the clues it can give us.

Your body can also help or hinder your performance. For example, you may have read that adopting a powerful stance makes you feel and act more authoritative, confident and, yes, powerful. That’s why an erect posture and holding your head high is important when you’re in a meeting, making a presentation, or chatting with your manager, staff or colleagues. Add to that a few calming breaths to oxygenate your brain to clarify your thinking and you’ll be a star!

For an extra confidence boost, pop into the loo or the stationery cupboard and stand like Super Woman for a few minutes. It works because of the mind–behaviour–results loop that I’ve written about before.

Smiling is another way your mind obeys your body and brings better results. When you smile, you feel happier and more positive; when you frown, you feel gloomier and more negative. And so do those around you.

Crossed arms usually makes you look stubborn and uncooperative, but crossing your arms deliberately can boost your willpower and help you stick with tough tasks and perform them better. Here’s one experiment that explains why.

Tensing your muscles improves your willpower, too, and helps you bear pain, undertake unpleasant tasks, and overcome your aversion to hearing information you don’t want to (but need to) hear, according to this series of studies.

Gestures are important, too, for lots of reasons beyond leaking nervousness (self-grooming and too much or wild gesturing) and making and emphasising points you want to be remembered and believed (emphatic gestures). Gestures can make what you’re saying more understandable and persuasive when they match your message. And gesturing can even help you think and remember, as another study shows.

Mirroring other people’s gestures helps you empathise with them and understand where they’re coming from more easily. And of course, it shows you’re paying attention and builds bridges, making the whole communication process work more fluently.

There has been a lot in the media recently about how a rested body helps you think clearly and concentrate and even aids weight loss. Just lying down can kick in your creativity and help you solve problems, too. See my earlier post about daydreaming, for example.

So there you have it. The connection between your mind and body and the results you get is a strong one, and one that you can make even stronger with a little bit of fine tuning.

Stop doing, start thinking

You probably know about the learning cycle, or after action reviews, and when you’re involved in project work, you probably even do them with the team. But do you ever do them on your own?

In an earlier blog, John Borghetti on Leadership, I mentioned that the CEO of Virgin Australia, works through the learning cycle every evening, reviewing the day’s events and how he can ‘do it better’ tomorrow. This is a habit that many good leaders and executives have developed.

A recent study by Giada Di Stafani, Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano and Bradley Staats proves that you can increase your performance by 23% this way.

The first part of their study was with students and the second part with adult trainees in the workplace. And here’s what they found:

Just by spending the last 15 minutes of the day reviewing and writing down what they’d learned, the students and the adult trainees performed 23% better than the students and adult trainees who spent the last 15 minutes of the day working.

That’s a pretty good investment of 15 minutes, I’d say! Thinking, not doing. Hmmm.

The researchers believe that by taking the time to reflect and draw conclusions about what they’d learned, and articulating what they’d learned by writing down the key learnings did two things:

  1. It led to a deeper understanding.
  2. It increased their self-confidence.

Both of which, of course, increase performance.

Imagine–improving your performance by 23% by making daily reflection and noting down key learnings a part of your end-of-day routine. The only hard part is getting into the habit!

Giada Di Stefano built the habit by posting a sign on the wall in front of her computer screen that says:

Stop and think!

When she looks at it, she stops to think and reflect on what she’s been doing and what she’s learned.

How to build your resilience

The Spartans of ancient Greece believed resilience to be so important that they threw weak and puny babies into chasms to die and began military training for the rest at the age of seven. They went out of their way to make life the very opposite of luxurious.

Resilience is more than physical toughness, though. It’s really more about mental toughness and the ability to adapt and find your way around, over or through adversity.

Some people seem to take the lemons life throws at them (and everyone else) in their stride, deal with them and move on. Whether it’s the huge, sour lemons that really knock you for six, like losing your home in a flood or fire, or losing a loved one, or smaller lemons like missing out on a job you wanted or failing an exam, resilient people cope with stress and adversity reasonably well, with optimism and resourcefulness.

Other people become overwhelmed easily, dwell on problems and fall apart when the going gets tough. Not the recipe for a happy life.

Let’s be clear here: Resilience isn’t about toughing it out, making lemonade from lemons or brushing problems or difficulties aside. It’s about having confidence and fortitude to deal with difficulties and solve problems.

Resilience is closely related to emotional intelligence and like emotional intelligence, it’s a learned set of skills that revolve around seven inner, interrelated strengths:

  1. Causal analysis: the ability to figure out why things are the way they are so you can be more in control of what happens to you and how you think about what has happened. It helps you not personalise setbacks: ‘Why me?’For instance, accepting that change is part of life helps you deal with disappointments and disasters and can even help you find new and better alternatives.

    Good problem solving skills are a boon here; when you’re a good problem solver, you can break down what you need to do into ‘doable’ steps that you can actually see yourself taking and you’ll feel good about the progress you’re making.

  2. Emotional regulation: the ability to take charge of your emotions so they don’t swamp you.Although it can be difficult during dark spells, it’s important to stay positive. That doesn’t mean ignoring problems or pretending they don’t exist; it means seeing them as temporary and figuring out how best to deal with them, and keeping what you want clearly in mind, rather than worrying about what you fear or dwelling on the past or on something you can’t change.

    You can also use humour to help you get through the difficult patches. Laughter is a great healer; it makes you feel better and when you feel better, it’s easier to take positive action.

  3. Impulse control: The ability to control your emotions.For instance, getting back into all the little normal life routines you had before a traumatic event, even the simple acts of going to bed and getting up at your usual times and getting back to regular, predictable meal times provides a feeling of security and normalcy.
  4. Empathy: the ability to see situations from other people’s points of view.When all you can see is you, it’s no wonder you get smothered by your problems. Seeing the world from other points of view takes you out of yourself and gives you an interest in something beyond yourself. Empathy helps you understand that there are always other ways of looking at a situation which can also help you find ways to work through your problems.
  5. Asking for help: the willingness to as others for help and offer help to others.Strong networks of family, friends and colleagues who will listen and offer advice or support buoy your confidence and therefore your resilience.
  6. Realistic optimism: You can think of this as the ability to ‘travel hopefully’.You can’t change events but you can set your sights on a positive outcome and expect the best for the future. Setting a goal, knowing what you want so you know what’s at the end of the tunnel helps you ‘keep soldiering on’, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, and working towards whatever it is you want to achieve.
  7. Self-esteem: A healthy self-esteem means you have the confidence to take action to better the situation, to decide what needs to be done and do it.The upside of this is when you’re doing something, you’re not floundering in a mental fog of confusion or regret and you’ve moved beyond feeling overwhelmed.

    Knowing what your priorities are and working towards accomplishing them every day builds your confidence and moves you in the right direction, too.

These are the skills and thought patterns to build so you can consistently perform competently in difficult circumstances and under stress. Resilience won’t make your problems go away, of course–like death and taxes, the other certain thing about life is that you sometimes have to deal with lemons. Resilience helps you do that more gracefully and bounce back more quickly.

Do you bring out the best in people?

When do you bring the most joy–upon your arrival or your departure? Some people bring joy where-ever they go. Others bring joy when-ever they go.

Think about the people you like best. They’re probably the ones who bring joy where-ever they go. Chances are, they don’t go around tearing others down or pointing out their faults; they create opportunities for them to ‘star’. They don’t interrupt people with their own ideas and opinions; they hear people out. They don’t discourage others when they’re attempting something difficult or new; they encourage and support them.

The people we like best make us feel good about ourselves. Have you ever worked for someone who set high goals for you to work toward, made it clear they had every faith that you would achieve them, and gave you every support you needed?

People like this don’t mollycoddle people by doing things for them or giving them easy tasks to do. They bring out the best in people by showing them how to do things for themselves and helping them achieve things they had never thought possible.

The do lots of seemingly small, but important things. They:

  • set high standards and expect the best
  • offer help when they can see it’s needed
  • include people in conversations
  • focus on the positive in others
  • make an effort to say hello and greet people warmly.

We like and trust these people because they make us feel good.

So here’s your challenge for the rest of the week: Make the people around you feel good about themselves!

The biggest problem in communication

Ask anybody at work ‘What’s the biggest problem around here?’ and nine out of 10 people will say ‘Communication!’ That’s easy to say, and I think it’s absolutely right–as far as it goes. But I think we need to go further to find the heart of the problem. I think the real problem is that we lose sight of why we’re communicating in the first place. We forget what we’re really after, both in the short term and the long term.

In the short term, we might communicate to pass on some information, to find an answer to a question, or even to pass the time of day. In the long term, it might be to build terrific working relationships, to build a productive work team or to pass on important organisational values. When we lose sight of those goals, especially the long term ones, our communication is bound to fail.

To turn the ‘biggest problem’ around and communicate successfully, we need to keep the real reasons we’re communicating in sight. Then we can express ourselves clearly and authentically. Whether we’re the most articulate person on the planet or the least, our intentions shine through when we keep our communication goals in mind.

The heart of the problem, then, may be that we do so much communicating, we seldom think about it–we just open our mouths and yack away, or look at someone and listen while they’re yacking away.

Or maybe we just switch of and not communicate at all. This isn’t as silly as it might sound: join the club if your life is so hectic that sitting down for a quiet chat with someone seems like a luxury. Perhaps even taking the time to pass on information that others need often takes a back seat because we’re so flat out.

When we do take the time to communicate, we’re sometimes so rushed that we don’t pause to think through what we want to say and how to say it best and what our underlying goals are, short and long term. To top it off, we don’t take the time to check whether our message was received clearly.

And in our haste, we may forget to explain our reasons or our priorities, even when that background information is important. People aren’t mind readers and our rationale isn’t necessarily obvious to anyone except ourselves.

And then, of course, there’s the biggie, the one you’ve probably already thought of: not listening. Taking the time to stop what we’re in the middle of and really pay attention to the other person can be a huge challenge. But without that, there isn’t much communication.

It’s so easy to get it wrong. And so easy to get it right.