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Face Time: Reading Expressions to Gain a Competitive Edge

 “As you move higher up the corporate food chain, the decisions become more important, but the information you receive gets …

 As you move higher up the corporate food chain, the decisions become more important, but the information you receive gets more diluted,” is an observation I’ve heard from both my father, a retired 3M executive, and my father-in-law, formerly CEO of American Hospital Systems. It’s an observation that raises a fundamental issue: how can business leaders protect themselves by ensuring that they know what is really going on within the company and the marketplace? 

Too often, communication between people in corporate life, as in our private lives, is bedeviled by a pair of issues: 1) as receiver, do we trust the information we’re getting, and 2) as sender, just how much should we disclose, when, and to whom? For either party, the crux of the problem is in communicating; people seek to protect themselves and advance their own agenda. Therefore, they may not share all that they know. 

Fortunately, there’s a reliable, scientific way to solve the problem and seize the advantage. There are, of course, two communication channels between people: what they say verbally and what they reveal non-verbally. So in situations ranging from high-stakes negotiations, to public relations speaking events, to interacting with business partners or senior management, the savvy CEO won’t settle just for the information that gets provided aloud. 

How Best to Read Other People’s Emotions 

What’s the method the CIA and FBI use to protect national security? It’s called facial coding, and can be used by you too to protect and enhance your company and your own fortunes. Originated by the English scientist Charles Darwin, facial coding began with Darwin‘s series of insights. 

First, emotions matter. Otherwise, they would have been weaned out of us over the course of evolution. 

Second, the face is the best place for reading the emotions of others because it’s the only part of the body where the muscles attach directly to the skin, providing a quick, sensitive, real-time reading of what others are feeling emotionally. 

Third, the face is a treasure trove of information because human beings have more facial muscles than any other species. 

Fourth, facial expressions are universal. Indeed, as Darwin realized and half a dozen studies have confirmed, even a person born blind displays the same expressions as the sighted. In other words, the ability to emote is hardwired into the brain rather than being a socialized skill. Indeed, some emotions are already expressed on a newborn’s face, and by nine onths of age all of the seven core emotions are emoted. 

The truth is that everybody’s a natural facial coder. There’s a part of the brain that reads other people’s faces, and it is six times more sensitive than the part of the brain that reads objects because judging somebody as “friend” or “foe” is a key survival ability. 

It’s therefore no wonder that former president LBJ said, “If you can’t walk into a room and know who’s with you and who’s against you, you ain’t worth spit as a politician.” Or in business terms, consider the research that found people were willing to pay three times as much for a product when prompted with a smiling face rather than seeing an angry face!

Applications for Facial Coding in Business Life 

For simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on three applications that indicate the value of the ability to read the emotional signals that people inadvertently provide. 

1) Negotiating with Business Partners 

Years ago, I had a dramatic opportunity to use facial coding while I was acting on behalf of the State of New Jersey in negotiating the provisions of one of the first car leasing laws in the country. A delegation of, at times, as many as 15 to 20 accomplished lawyers representing General Motors Toyota, Ford and a number of financial institutions, faced me across the negotiation table. How did I compete against such high-price talent and get terms that aided consumers, didn’t bind the hands of business, and led to my being honored by the state Senate? 

The answer is facial coding. Time and again, I would study the faces of the delegation to assess when I had gone too far in arguing for a certain provision or when what I was proposing was solid and fair. You can do so, too, by looking to make sure of certain basic signals. 

When you’ve given inadvertent offense, you’re likely to know if it you see the other party tense up: the lower lip may tighten, for instance, or the person’s eyes may narrow. Coming on too strong? The answer may lie either in upraised eyebrows and wrinkles that emerge on the forehead, or the other party’s mouth may subtly pull wider. Failing to establish likeability or credibility? Then you may see the nose wrinkle or upper lip rise in a sign that you’ve been rejected. Even more fatal: the corner of the mouth tightens in a sign of contempt as the other party doesn’t find your line of argument believable.

2) How You Project During Public Speaking Events 

How a leader comes across from the podium is of decisive importance. Research indicates that the emotional climate within a company may account for as much as 30% of its importance, and that over 50% of that climate gets predominantly established by the CEO. That’s why I’ve trained senior management teams by providing them with a top-line understanding of facial coding, and why I’ve coached CEOs by first coding tapes of their speeches and then walking them through suggestions for improvement. 

Take the case of a CEO who was impatient for the company’s rank and file to make the changes he wanted. The problem? Showing some anger with the pace of change was okay, but this CEO revealed contempt for his subordinates, thereby undermining the likelihood that they would be on the CEO’s side in achieving the results he wanted. 

The good news? This CEO wasn’t given to lying, which is key because the first thing staff wants to know, as surveys show, is whether they can trust their leadership. There is no one muscle movement that signals deceit. Otherwise, botox surgery would become a major epidemic. To avoid running afoul of people’s desire for honesty in yourself and others, look for signs of false smiles. Be wary of smiles that form or end too abruptly, that stay frozen on the face, that fail to have any rhythm or flow, that are more pronounced on one side of the face than the other.

An appeal/impact chart ranking the CEO’s performance shows that his most promising speech was at the 2nd Annual meeting (left). Also an overall look at the emotions that the CEO expressed during the three engagements (right).  This chart identities two major trouble spots: most of the positive emotion is from less lively forms of smiling, while dislike (including contempt) is prevent enough to be possibly off-putting to employees.

Gauging Senior Management 

In studies for USA Today and for an investment firm building its client recommendations based on those CEOs we found to have an effective personality profile, we’ve seen a wide range of character types. In daily life, we call somebody a “hot head” when they tend to exhibit anger. Following that principle, you begin to understand the underlying personality of almost anybody by detecting how they tend to emote. 

What’s the worst combination of traits? It’s a combination of contempt and fear because both modes of feeling involve cutting yourself off from others. With contempt, you dismiss the ideas of others because you feel superior. With fear, you fail to ingest the ideas of others because you tend to freeze up. 

Knowing how to look for personality types based on how people emote can be helpful in hiring senior management or working with them on a daily basis. You want to have on board types with whom you can relate, and who are flexible enough to adapt and enact your agenda. At the same time, however, being able to understand how often they emote can be valuable in terms of knowing whether members of your team remain engaged by their jobs. 

After all, as reported by USA Today, only 49% of top executives are engaged by their jobs while 9% are actively disengaged. Knowing who fits which of those categories can be of crucial importance in building a senior management team that can achieve your objectives. For instance, in our review of leading executives for USA Today, we found that Steve Jobs of Apple is still very engaged by his job, while others among his peer were less so. 

Finally, signs of sadness, which is evident when the corners of the mouth pull down or the cheeks lift obliquely away from the mouth in what looks to be a smile but is, in fact, a sign of sadness, can signal that somebody is deflated and allowing his or her job performance to drift.

In a study of 10 top CEOs for USA Today, Steve Jobs regularly emoted heavily, showing that he is still engaged in what his job as Apple’s CEO.  His nine other colleagues on the other hand tended to emote about 40% less, showing that not all CEOs still have the passion.

In Conclusion: Hope Sells 

At Southwest Airlines, hiring is done in large part based on identifying happy people who will make customers happy as well. That same principle applies to projecting a positive leadership persona and looking to surround yourself with a senior management team given to enjoying the job. With a true smile, not only do the corners of the mouth and the cheeks rise, but the eyes come into play. More specifically, the muscle around the eye relaxes, putting a twinkle in the eye, creating crow’s feet, puffing up the skin below the eye -including in particular the inner, lower corner of the eye- and deepening the furrow below the eye. Finally, the upper eyelid droops; the outer eyebrow may droop also.  

Real pleasure as signaled in these ways should alert the savvy CEO that a business partnership or negotiated deal, is turning into either a big win/win for both parties or needs to be reexamined to guard against giving away the store. Be wary, but also be positive. While fleeting micro-expressions of anger, fear or disgust are crucial in their own right, ultimately any successful working relationship must be built on positives. So in addition to being on guard for danger signs, enjoy the upbeat, ebullient moments, too. As Richard Nixon once said, “American like winners,” so show that you’re one as well.


Dan Hill is a principal of Sensory Logic, Inc. a consultancy that  measures consumer emotions and people’s decision-making process for consumer insight testing. Recognizing that the body doesn’t lie, Sensory Logic utilizes both verbal and non-verbal methods and has developed a systematic approach that  reflects the new scientific model that intuitive, and often subconscious, experiences drive consumers toward decisions that eventually determine a company’s market share and profits. Sensory Logic’s clients include Target, General Motors, GlaxoSmithKline, Toyota, Capital One, Goodyear, Nationwide Insurance, Eli Lilly, Abbott Laboratories, Texas Instruments, Sherwin-Williams, Staples, Nextel, among other Fortune 500 companies. He received his Ph.D. from Rutgers University following studies at Brown University, Oxford University, and St. Olaf College. His books include “Body of Truth: Leveraging What Consumer’s Can’t or Won’t Say,” and “Emotionomics, Winning Hearts and Minds.” 

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