The perils of bad body language

May 9, 2007, 5:48 PM UTC

Students of business and skullduggery were amused today by a story in the New York Times that truly read like a page from the work of either Larry David or John LeCarre. It’s a tale of intrigue, behind-the-scenes machinations at nosebleed levels, and high-stakes litigation in which executives of Dow Chemical (DOW) are pitted at each other, a big investment bank has been hauled into the controversy, and suits and countersuits are now rocketing back and forth as one suit sues another and the other countersues the original suit.

I want you to notice, please, the presence of litigation. I have a philosophy about litigation. I don’t want to be involved in any. So I’m not going to comment on any part of the story that involves said litigation, not the allegation by one side that a plot was being hatched to foment an unfriendly takeover, nor the countersuit by the other side that contends something contrariwise. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if anything happened. I wish everybody well, unless that makes anybody angry, in which case I wish nobody well, if that’s all right.

I do, however, have one small observation as a corporate citizen to make about the incident cited in the Times by writer Andrew Ross Sorkin, whose work I have enjoyed for many years as long as it didn’t pertain to anything he was investigating about me or anybody I know.  Mr. Sorkin states that on March 23, the chief executive of Dow Chemical wrote a “scathing performance review” to one of his top executives, Romeo Kleinberg, who is now involved in the stuff I have no desire to comment on except to say it’s not pleasant any way you look at it. “I expect to see that your negative body language when you disagree with a course of action is eliminated,” said the memo, according to the Times. “Frankly, your recent behavior was the last straw and I will not allow such destructive behavior to be repeated.”

Just how bad do you think the offensive body language was? I’m thinking it was pretty bad, if Mr. Liveris found it necessary to document it. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say what we’re talking about here. But based on decades of aggravating meetings attended and endured, I can tell you a few things to avoid when you want to conceal your contempt, disapproval or opposition to the proceedings. There may be more, but here are a few places to start:

  • Yawning like a lion: Small yawns are permissable, but huge roaring displays of uninterest convey a very clear message to the guys who are running the show that they are keeping you from far more interesting things;
  • Tapping one’s pencil on the front of one’s teeth: it makes a clicking noise and shows that you’re not mentally engaged. Any excessive oral activity – sucking noises, teeth grinding, motorboating one’s lips – is equally inadvisable, for similar reasons;
  • Slouching ironically low in one’s chair and sticking one’s feet straight out underneath the board room table: Indeed, any highly unorthodox posture sends a clear signal that proper respect for authority is not being maintained;
  • Egregious sighing: Likewise, snorting from one’s nose, loud ejaculations like “Ha!” that come out of nowhere, and mutterings like, “gimme a break” or “as if!” will engender nothing but resentment in those striving to have their power taken seriously;
  • Thumbing one’s BlackBerry when the CEO is speaking: Unless you’re a real friend of the Boss, this is just about as rude as one can get in an open convocation without actually belching, unless one is in China, where I understand belching is encouraged in virtually all venues;
  • Throwing things at other people, even in fun: Come on. I don’t have to tell you this.  Not even paper clips;
  • Jumping on the table and howling like a monkey: Board room tables scratch easily and are very hard to repair.

The challenge for true business types is clear. We get where we are by being good communicators, by letting people know what we think, and by influencing them by displays of clarity. This story reminds us that the better part of strategy is sometimes a little discretion, huh?