Previous studies have shown that facial characteristics can help elevate a person into leadership roles. New research shows that different facial characteristics fit different domains — for example, businesspeople are expected to look ‘competent,’ while sports leaders look more ‘masculine.’ The research also shows that most people don’t have much confidence in their leadership inferences based on facial cues. But those who are confident, including corporate board members, may unconsciously be placing too much weight on facial cues in selecting leaders.
A number of academic studies have shown that because many of us form impressions about potential leaders from their facial characteristics, certain facial characteristics (for example, a ‘competent’ look) can help people achieve leadership positions. At least six different studies show that CEOs who share certain facial characteristics command higher salaries or are hired by more successful companies than CEOs who do not share those characteristics.
While previous research focused on facial characteristics within domains, new research from a team of academics from the Warwick Business School in the UK, and the universities of Carnegie Mellon and Pennsylvania State in the U.S., explores the different facial characteristics that might apply to different domains — specifically military, business, sports and politics.
The new research focuses on two questions: 1) whether the domain of a leader can be inferred from facial characteristics; and 2) whether people are confident that they can identify the domain.
The research consisted of two studies. In the first, participants were shown two faces and asked which belonged to a target domain (e.g. Which of these two faces belong to a businessman?’). The participants were then asked to rate, on a sliding scale, their confidence in their choice. In the second study, participants were shown a single face and asked to evaluate the face based on several basic dimensions (examples of the 15 dimensions in the study include ‘baby-faced,’ ‘confident,’ ‘disciplined,’ ‘threatening,’ ‘masculine,’ and ‘likeable’).
The data from the two studies were then analysed, and the following conclusions were drawn:
In this study, people from the general population in the UK were able to identify above chance whether someone was a military, business or sports leader. Political leaders, it seems, do not have defining facial characteristics.
Realising that we are unaware we rely on facial cues as we form impressions of leaders, what can boards, senior executives or other decision makers do to guard against this potential bias?
There is no subjective study of the link between look and reality (e.g. sports leaders may ‘look’ less competent than business leaders, but that hardly means that they are less competent). However, the psychological perception inferred from facial characteristics that fit the domain in which a leader operates may make the leader more persuasive and credible.
However, evaluators must be cautious about relying too much on facial cues to predict leadership success. That many people underestimate their ability to draw accurate inferences from social cues may in fact indicate that the accuracy is based on subconscious indicators. According to the research team, this, in turn, means that those who believe strongly in their ability to discern future leaders — including corporate board members and voters — may fall prey to the same biases as their less confident peers. Yet, they may speak with more confidence while being unaware of these potential biases.
In short, the research team warns, beware of unconscious biases that may influence decisions about who will or will not be an effective leader. The result could be the rejection of good candidates and the elevation of the less deserving (but who look right).
Ideas for Leaders is a free-to-access site. If you enjoy our content and find it valuable, please consider subscribing to our Developing Leaders Quarterly publication, this presents academic, business and consultant perspectives on leadership issues in a beautifully produced, small volume delivered to your desk four times a year.
For the less than the price of a coffee a week you can read over 650 summaries of research that cost universities over $1 billion to produce.
Use our Ideas to:
Speak to us on how else you can leverage this content to benefit your organization. firstname.lastname@example.org