WMU Nonverbal Behavior in Relationship Messages Discussion
Type a document in which you take each of the nonverbal codes listed in the left-hand column (e.g., kinesics) and bullet point how you would use that behavior to send each of the four relationship messages listed. For instance, how would you use body movement to convey “I like you” versus “I barely know you”? What nonverbal things could you do to make sure the right message comes across? Base your answers on information in the textbook and videos.
The speed and scope of the coronavirus crisis poses extraordinary challenges for leaders in today’s
vital institutions. It is easy to understand why so many have missed opportunities for decisive
action and honest communication. But it is a mistake to think that failures of leadership are all we
can expect in these grim times.
Consider Adam Silver, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), who —
way back on March 11 — took the then-surprising step of suspending the professional basketball
league for the season. Silver’s decision was one of the earliest high-profile responses to the virus
outside China. He delivered it at a time of great uncertainty; coincidentally, March 11 was the day
that the World Health Organization formally designated the coronavirus a pandemic.
When the situation is uncertain, human instinct and basic management training can cause
leaders — out of fear of taking the wrong steps and unnecessarily making people anxious — to
delay action and to downplay the threat until the situation becomes clearer. But behaving in this
manner means failing the coronavirus leadership test, because by the time the dimensions of the
threat are clear, you’re badly behind in trying to control the crisis. Passing that test requires leaders
to act in an urgent, honest, and iterative fashion, recognizing that mistakes are inevitable and
correcting course — not assigning blame — is the way to deal with them when they occur.
In a moment of tremendous ambiguity, Silver’s decisive action — well before state governments
began restricting public gatherings in the United States — set off a chain of events that almost
certainly altered the course of the virus. Over a million fans would now avoid potential exposure at
games. Moreover, the decision had a powerful ripple effect: The suspension of the NCAA’s
historic “March Madness” college tournament; the National Hockey League (NHL), Major League
Baseball (MLB), and other sports leagues halting their own operations; and the rescheduling of the
That this action happened in the sports arena may be material. Here was the NBA, an organization
with more than $8 billion in 2019 revenue, known for physical prowess and competitiveness, not
excess caution, acting with what appeared at the time to be great caution and reserve.
It got people thinking.
But could a politician ever show similar courage in getting out ahead of the virus before its impact
was widely apparent? In fact, that is exactly what happened in New Zealand. Prime Minister
Jacinda Ardern’s response to the pandemic back on March 21 was bold and engendered public
support. That day, Ardern delivered an eight-minute televised statement to the nation in which she
announced a four-level Covid-19 alert system. Modeled on fire risk systems already in use in New
Zealand, this familiar approach set clear guidelines for how the government would step up its
response — and what would be asked of citizens as infection rates grew.
The prime minister’s announcement, when New Zealand had only 52 confirmed cases, set the alert
level at two, restricting some travel and urging people to limit contact. But when cases grew to 205
four days later, the alert system was raised to level four, triggering a nationwide lockdown. While
her political peers — heads of state around the world — worried about their ability to maintain
public support for sweeping restrictions, Ardern’s actions showed that honesty and caring yield
support. A national poll put her government at over 80% public approval as of March 27. And,
although uncertainty remains high, as of April 7 the number of new cases in New Zealand had
fallen for two consecutive days. The country reported only 54 cases on April 6 and only one
Covid-19 death since the pandemic started, leading to the Washington Post headline: “New
Zealand isn’t just Flattening the Curve. It’s Squashing it.”
Importantly, Ardern’s explicit step system meant that people knew in advance that escalation was
coming. They knew what would be required of them — and they accepted the challenge.
How a message is delivered matters. Ardern’s communication was clear, honest, and
compassionate: It acknowledged the daily sacrifices to come and inspired people to forge ahead in
bearing them together. Ardern closed her March 21 address by thanking New Zealanders for all
they were about to do. And her powerful parting words were soon picked up around the globe as
people looked for direction in the fog: “Please be strong, be kind, and unite against Covid-19.”
What Ardern and Silver got right in March, before the situation was clear to much of the public,
reveals a great deal about what good leadership looks like during this pandemic. Understanding
what’s required of leaders in this moment starts with appreciation for the type of problem this
pandemic presented in its initial phases. When warning signs are fuzzy and potential harm could be
large, leaders confront what management scholars call an ambiguous threat. Given the human
desire to hope a threat is small, we are drawn to act as if that is factually the case. Fiascos ranging
from NASA’s Columbia Shuttle disaster in 2003 to the 2008 financial system collapse have
brought into sharp relief the unique challenge that ambiguous threats pose to leaders: cognitive
biases, dysfunctional group dynamics, and organizational pressures push them toward discounting
the risk and delaying action, often to catastrophic ends.
It takes a unique kind of leadership to push against the natural human tendency to downplay and
delay. Far too many leaders instead try to send upbeat messages assuring all is well — which, in
the current tragedy, has unfortunately led to unnecessary lost life at a scale that may never be
accurately counted. But this is by no means the only path for leaders to take. Building on the cases
of Silver and Ardern, we distill four lessons for leaders in a novel crisis.
Overcome Your Instincts So You Can Lead Effectively
1. Act with urgency.
A well-documented and pernicious problem with any ambiguous threat is the (understandable)
tendency to wait for more information and clarity. The risks of delaying decision-making are often
invisible. But in a crisis, wasting vital time in the vain hope that greater clarity will prove no action
is needed is dangerous — particularly in the face of a pandemic with an exponential growth rate,
when each additional day of delay contributes even greater devastation than the last. Against the
natural tendency toward delay, acting with urgency means leaders jump into the fray without all
the information they would dearly like. Both Ardern and Silver acted early, well before others in
similar circumstances and well before the future was clear. It was what Ardern publicly
described as an explicit choice to “go hard and go early.”
2. Communicate with transparency.
Communicating bad news is a thankless task. Leaders who get out ahead risk demoralizing
employees, customers, or citizens, threatening their popularity. It takes wisdom and some courage
to understand that communicating with transparency is a vital antidote to this risk. As Ardern
stated in her early national address:
I understand that all of this rapid change creates anxiety and uncertainty. Especially when it means
changing how we live. That’s why today I am going to set out for you as clearly as possible, what
you can expect as we continue to fight the virus together.
Since that announcement, Ardern has delivered regular public addresses, including some in a
sweatshirt recorded obviously from home. Silver similarly sent a barrage of memos throughout the
NBA organization as his decision-making process unfolded. As reported on ESPN, 16 (yes, 16!)
“Hiatus Memos” were delivered to the teams as of March 19.
Communicating with transparency means providing honest and accurate descriptions of reality —
being as clear as humanly possible about what you know, what you anticipate, and what it means
for people. It is crucial to convey your message in a way that people can understand, as Ardern did
by echoing the familiar four-level alert system. But communication cannot be utterly devoid of
hope or people will simply give in to despair. Somewhere in that communication must be a hopeful
vision of the future toward which people can direct their energy, because without hope, resolve is
3. Respond productively to missteps.
Because of the novelty and complexity of a pandemic — or any other large system failure —
problems will arise regardless of how well a leader acts. How leaders respond to the inevitable
missteps and unexpected challenges is just as important as how they first address the crisis.
First, they must not revert to defensiveness or blame when mistakes are made. Instead, they must
stay focused on the goal and look ahead to continue solving the next and most pressing problems.
For instance, when New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio lambasted the unfairness of NBA players
accessing tests that remained out of reach for the rest of America, Silver publicly acknowledged
the criticism, accepted it as valid, and emphasized the (real) fundamental problem of the testing
shortage — with an eye on the larger picture. He said, “I, of course, understand [de Blasio’s] point,
and it is unfortunate that we are at this position in this society where it’s triage where it comes to
testing. So, the fundamental issue is obviously that there are insufficient tests.”
In short, it is not our intention to suggest that the NBA’s response to the virus was perfect but
rather to point out that Silver took the criticism in and kept focused on the key issue of fighting the
pandemic and making tests more widely available. The important response to any misstep is to
listen, acknowledge, and orient everyone toward problem-solving.
4. Engage in constant updating.
An all-too-common misconception of good leadership is that a leader must be steady and
unrelenting in staying the course. Certainly, steadiness is required in these times. But given the
novelty and rapid evolution of the pandemic, it is wrong to think that the work of the leader is to
set a course and stick to it. Leaders must constantly update their understanding of prior
probabilities, even daily, deliberately using strategies to elicit new information and learn rapidly as
events unfold and new information comes to light.
Doing this means relying on expert advisors and energetically seeking diverse opinions. Silver
drew on a long and diverse list of advisors as he has made his way through this crisis: from the
NBA’s director of sports medicine, John DiFiori, to his colleagues based in China who saw the
virus’ early toll, to a former U.S. surgeon general, Vivek Murthy. A leader’s advisory team in the
face of an ambiguous threat may change over time, because new information often means new
problems have surfaced and the necessary expertise will shift accordingly. Finding and leveraging
the right people for evolving problems is part of the updating challenge.
Tapping into Suffering to Build Meaning
Perhaps Silver and Ardern’s proactive responses were accidents of history rather than a special
brilliance. When the first reports of the coronavirus reached Silver, he was writing a eulogy for his
longtime mentor, former NBA Commissioner David Stern. It was also not long after former star
player Kobe Bryant and eight others suddenly died in a helicopter crash. These events, although
unrelated to Covid-19, may have put Silver in a reflective mood that helped him to see the
emerging threat of the virus through a human lens. Similarly, Jacinda Ardern was feeling somber
in March, which brought the one-year anniversary of the Christchurch mosque shootings that killed
51 people, the deadliest mass shooting in her country’s history.
Most people in positions of authority have seen great suffering or experienced loss — or at least
their advisors have — and yet far too many failed to decisively take potentially unpopular action in
the critical days as the virus gained momentum. They might argue that they were trying to remain
professional: to stay rational and dispassionate, to keep their personal emotion at bay, and bide
their time. But the cases of Ardern and Silver suggest an opposite approach.
We believe that leadership is strengthened by continually referring to the big picture as an anchor
for meaning, resisting the temptation to compartmentalize or to consider human life in statistics
Leadership in an uncertain, fast-moving crisis means making oneself available to feel what it is like
to be in another’s shoes — to lead with empathy. Perhaps in the coming weeks the unfortunate
scale of this pandemic will make empathy easier for many leaders. But awful scale can also have a
numbing effect. It will be incumbent on leaders to put themselves in another’s suffering, to feel
with empathy and think with intelligence, and then to use their position of authority to make a path
forward for us all. Crises of historical proportion can make for leaders of historical distinction, but
that is far from guaranteed.
Relationship Messages and Nonverbal Codes Worksheet
“I like you”
“I have power
“I feel inferior