Nonverbal Communication in Work Contexts
- LAST REVIEWED: 01 March 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0125
- LAST REVIEWED: 01 March 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
- 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). Spatiotemporal 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, systematic attention to research on 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 article 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. 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. Hall, et al. 2019 concentrates on nonverbal communication as it pertains to social interactions. More-comprehensive reviews are offered in three handbooks: Manusov and Patterson 2006; Hall and Knapp 2013; and Matsumoto, et al. 2016, which includes a good historical overview of the field. Plusquellec and Denault 2018 presents the results of a bibliometric analysis of the one thousand most-cited papers on visible nonverbal behavior. For information on methods and measures, readers are referred to Manusov 2005 and Harrigan, et al. 2005 (see also Methodological Considerations).
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.
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.
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.
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., Terrence G. Horgan, and Nora A. Murphy. “Nonverbal Communication.” Annual Review of Psychology 70.1 (2019): 271–294.
This review paper focuses on nonverbal communication as it pertains to individuals and social interactions. Recent evidence on encoding is reviewed. The decoding process and factors that influence interpersonal accuracy are discussed. Current measurement and theoretical issues as well as future research directions are presented. Organizational researchers studying interpersonal judgements may find this review helpful.
Hall, Judith A., and Mark L. Knapp, eds. Nonverbal Communication. Handbooks of Communication Science 2. Boston: De Gruyter, 2013.
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.
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 judgement 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.
Manusov, Valerie, ed. The Sourcebook of Nonverbal Measures: Going beyond Words. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005.
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.
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., Hyi Sung Hwang, and Mark G. Frank. APA Handbook of Nonverbal Communication. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2016.
Part 1 provides an overview and history of the field. Part 2 and 3 discuss the influencing factors and sources of nonverbal behavior and communication. Part 4 presents discussions on research methods that are specific to the various channels of nonverbal behavior (e.g., facial expressions, voice, gesture, eye behavior, olfactics). This handbook is a great resource for those who wish to build a foundation on nonverbal behavior and communication.
Plusquellec, Pierrich, and Vincent Denault. “The 1000 Most Cited Papers on Visible Nonverbal Behavior: A Bibliometric Analysis.” Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 42.3 (2018): 347–377.
This paper summarizes a few key features of the one thousand most-cited papers on visible nonverbal behavior in Web of Science. Discussion includes historical changes in topics, methods, recent trends, and promising areas for future exploration. Moreover, most influential authors and journals in the field are identified.
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