In This Article Nonverbal Communication in Work Contexts

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works and Reviews
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Methodological Considerations

Management Nonverbal Communication in Work Contexts
Silvia Bonaccio, Jane O'Reilly, Sharon O'Sullivan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0125


From using a firm handshake to make a strong first impression, to using a light touch on the shoulder to establish rapport with a new coworker, or sitting at the head of a table to convey authority in a meeting, nonverbal communication is highly relevant to organizational life. Nonverbal communication is communication that is not linguistic; that is, communication that does not rely on verbal language or words, whether the language is produced by the voice (e.g., American English) or by codified gestures (e.g., American Sign Language). Nonverbal communication is thus the transmission and reception of thoughts and feelings through nonverbal behavior. Nonverbal behaviors are often organized into nonverbal codes (see Codes of Nonverbal Communication), which is a classification of communication modalities. Specifically, body codes refer to communication through kinesics (body movement and facial expression), physical appearance, and oculesics (eye gaze and ocular expression). Sensory and contact codes encompass communicating through haptics (touch), vocalics (auditory properties of language, or how something is said), and olfactics (scent and smell). Finally, spatio-temporal codes include proxemics (communicating through the use of space), chronemics (the temporal aspect of communication), and the environment (communicating through the properties of one’s surroundings or artifacts). Nonverbal communication serves many different functions (see Functions of Nonverbal Behavior and Communication). In organizations the primary functions are Displaying Personal Attributes, Exercising Dominance and Establishing Hierarchy, Promoting Social Functioning, Fostering High-Quality Relationships, and Displaying Emotions. It is interesting to note that despite its relevance and the sustained interest on nonverbal behavior in the popular press, attention on systematic research to nonverbal communication in organizations has historically been lacking from the field of organizational behavior (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article in Management “Organizational Behavior”). The research on nonverbal behavior and communication is marked by cross-disciplinary involvement, with researchers in communication, psychology, management and organization sciences, and gender studies, among others, all contributing to the field. This cross-disciplinary approach makes the field richer but also harder to grasp for those unfamiliar with this research. The citations in this article are chosen because they speak to readers interested in understanding how nonverbal behavior and communication can be relevant to management processes and organizational life. This entry also offers citations relevant to methodological considerations (see Methodological Considerations) in the study of nonverbal behavior and communication.

Reference Works and Reviews

Bonaccio, et al. 2016 provides a review of nonverbal communication and behavior for readers interested in work and organizational processes. We recommend that organizational scholars begin with this article as an introduction to the topic. Ambady and Weisbuch 2010 also provides a review of the literature from a socialpsychology perspective. Guerrero and Floyd 2006 focuses specifically on nonverbal communication in close relationships, which can be relevant to the many types of workplace relationships. Hall, et al. 2005 presents the results of a meta-analysis on the nonverbal behaviors related to the vertical dimensions of social relationships. More-comprehensive reviews are offered in three handbooks: Manusov and Patterson 2006; Hall and Knapp 2013; and Matsumoto, et al. 2013. Knapp 2006 gives a good historical overview of the field. For information on methods and measures, readers are referred to Manusov 2005 and Harrigan, et al. 2005 (see also Methodological Considerations).

  • Ambady, Nalini, and Max Weisbuch. “Nonverbal Behavior.” In Handbook of Social Psychology. 5th ed. Edited by Susan T. Fiske, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Gardner Lindzey, 464–497. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Review chapter on nonverbal behavior written for a socialpsychology audience and relevant to organizational scholars. It is an excellent resource for a brief (yet comprehensive) introduction to the topic of nonverbal behavior. The chapter focuses on the production of nonverbal behavior before turning to the perception of nonverbal behavior. The role of nonverbal behavior in social influence is also discussed.

  • Bonaccio, Silvia, Jane O’Reilly, Sharon L. O’Sullivan, and François Chiocchio. “Nonverbal Behavior and Communication in the Workplace: A Review and an Agenda for Research.” Journal of Management 42.5 (2016): 1044–1074.

    DOI: 10.1177/0149206315621146E-mail Citation »

    This paper is the most recent comprehensive, integrative review of nonverbal communication and nonverbal behavior specifically focused on work and organizational phenomena. In addition to defining nonverbal communication, it describes the most-relevant codes of nonverbal behavior, focuses on the functions of nonverbal behavior that have implications for organizational life, and discusses methodological considerations relevant to researching nonverbal behavior in the workplace.

  • Guerrero, Laura K., and Kory Floyd. Nonverbal Communication in Close Relationships. LEA’s Series on Personal Relationships. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006.

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    This book focuses on close relationships in all areas of life, and it is thus relevant to close relationships in the workplace. After presenting definitions, the authors discuss perspectives on the origins of nonverbal communication. They then examine several topics of import to organizational life, such as nonverbal influence in the communication of emotions, power and interpersonal dominance, deception, and conflict. Attraction and affection are also discussed.

  • Hall, Judith A., Erik J. Coats, and Lavonia Smith LeBeau. “Nonverbal Behavior and the Vertical Dimension of Social Relations: A Meta-analysis.” Psychological Bulletin 131.6 (2005): 898–924.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.131.6.898E-mail Citation »

    This meta-analysis focused on the vertical dimension of interpersonal relationships; the vertical dimension refers to the dominance, power, and status aspects of relationships. Verticality was examined in relation to facial action, proxemics, kinesics, haptics, vocalics, oculesics, and other nonverbal codes. Results are presented separately for people’s beliefs about verticality and nonverbal behaviors, and for actual (observed) relations between verticality and nonverbal behaviors. See also Exercising Dominance and Establishing Hierarchy.

  • Hall, Judith A., and Mark L. Knapp, eds. Nonverbal Communication. Handbooks of Communication Science 2. Boston: De Gruyter, 2013.

    E-mail Citation »

    This volume provides a thorough review of the research on nonverbal behavior and communication. After a comprehensive treatment of fundamental topics (definitions, methods, origins, and functions) and modalities of communications (nonverbal codes such as facial and ocular behavior, vocal behavior, gestures), the volume reviews topics relevant to communication from individual, dyadic, and group membership perspectives. The final section, on settings, includes a chapter on nonverbal communication in the workplace.

  • Harrigan, Jinni A., Robert Rosenthal, and Klaus R. Scherer, eds. The New Handbook of Methods in Nonverbal Behavior Research. Series in Affective Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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    An updated version of the classic Handbook of Methods in Nonverbal Behavior Research, by Scherer and Paul Ekman (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982). The first section of the book focuses on specific methods and procedures (measuring facial action, vocal expression, proxemics, kinesics, and gaze, and conducting judgment studies). The second section discusses research methods, with a focus on specific contexts (e.g., education, psychopathology, deception, relationships). Supplementary materials include excellent treatments of technical issues in recording nonverbal behavior, and of methodological issues.

  • Knapp, Mark L. “An Historical Overview of Nonverbal Research.” In The SAGE Handbook of Nonverbal Communication. Edited by Valerie Manusov and Miles L. Patterson, 3–19. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2006.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781412976152.n1E-mail Citation »

    This chapter provides a review of the history of research on nonverbal behavior and communication. The development of this field of research is discussed in the context of key trends within research in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Researchers who have influenced early work on nonverbal behavior and communication are presented along with their notable contributions.

  • Manusov, Valerie, ed. The Sourcebook of Nonverbal Measures: Going Beyond Words. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005.

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    This book is an excellent compendium of measures of nonverbal behavior and communication. Several measures are reproduced, and all measures discussed are critically and comprehensively reviewed. In addition to describing the most-common measures and methods for assessing nonverbal behavior, the book also suggests new directions. A useful resource for graduate students and established researchers, it is particularly recommended for researchers new to the topic.

  • Manusov, Valerie, and Miles L. Patterson, eds. The SAGE Handbook of Nonverbal Communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    This handbook provides a comprehensive and interdisciplinary treatment of nonverbal behavior and communication. It is organized around four sections (foundations of nonverbal communication, factors influencing nonverbal communication, functions of nonverbal communication, and contexts of nonverbal communication). Management scholars will appreciate the chapter on nonverbal skills and abilities as well as the chapter on nonverbal communication in organizations.

  • Matsumoto, David R., Mark G. Frank, and Hyi Sung Hwang. Nonverbal Communication: Science and Applications. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2013.

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    This book is edited by leading researchers of nonverbal behavior and communication. Part I presents scientific research on facial expression, voice, body, and gestures; cultural influences; and deception. Part II reviews several occupational fields in which nonverbal behavior is relevant, such as policing, aviation security, courtrooms and law, negotiations, medicine and psychiatry, and consumer research.

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