Leadership: Does your face fit?

Study shows an ideal face of a leader tends to fit a stereotype associated with a profession
Findings of the study could be seen as depressing in terms of the push to encourage greater diversity in boardrooms

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Never judge a book by its cover is the kind of advice business leaders offer their staff. Apparently, however, physical appearance does provide a significant bias in the selection process for leaders.

This is the conclusion of a study of people’s reactions to anonymous faces, conducted by Dawn Eubanks, associate professor of behavioural science and strategy at Warwick Business School.

In a series of experiments designed to find out how well people could place which industry leaders worked in from their face alone, participants found they could successfully categorise the leaders in business, sport and the military although they found politicians difficult.

The implication is that within business, military and sport, those who achieve the highest positions of leadership share common facial features that distinguish them from leaders in other domains.

“The most plausible explanation, in our view, is that leaders are being selected, at least partly, according to how they look,” Prof Eubanks says.

“It does seem that people do hold these implicit ideas, not only about leaders in general, but about leaders in particular domains. We must all have the same sort of stereotypes.”

The research suggests that leaders may benefit not just from having competent or attractive looking faces, but also from having facial features that “fit” a certain stereotype uniquely associated with their particular domain.

The findings could be seen as depressing in terms of the push to encourage greater diversity in boardrooms. The faces chosen for the study were all of middle aged white males.

Prof Eubanks believes the results could be seen as an argument for more of the recent initiatives to encourage greater leadership diversity, such as the push to get more female executives in senior management positions in the City.

“It is important to not let implicit biases get in the way and ensure that there is a rigorous selection process in place,” Prof Eubanks notes.

For the paper, Prof Eubanks, along with fellow researchers Christopher Olivola, of Carnegie Mellon University, and Jeffrey Lovelace, of Pennsylvania State University, presented individuals from the US and UK with black and white photos of two leaders in several sequences. For example, some were shown a politician and a chief executive and then asked to select the business head.

The images showed only the cut-out face of each individual, not the hair, in order to reduce cues that might give away the domain that a leader worked in.

A total of 325 American chief executives, 64 US army generals, 66 state governors elected between 1996 and 2006 and 43 American football coaches were used with famous faces were removed from the sample. The 614 UK-based respondents were also asked to rate their confidence in their answers.

Despite a pessimistic outlook from participants on their estimations, the researchers found the mean accuracy levels significantly exceeded chance for most leadership categories.

“The fact that participants were able to categorise these leaders despite not recognising their faces and that these leaders were drawn from another country is noteworthy,” Prof Eubank says. “It suggests that facial stereotypes about business, military and sport leaders may cross national and cultural borders.”

The participants were not able to categorise political heads as well as they did the other leadership figures, suggesting that politicians may not have unique, distinguishable facial features that reveal their leadership domain.

Military and sports leaders were evaluated by respondents as looking less attractive and warm than the others. Business leaders, on the other hand, were seen as having particularly competent faces, while military leaders were identified as having more masculine and mature faces than the other types of leaders.

The study said nothing about whether possessing the facial characteristics of leader meant a person could be a great leader, Prof Eubanks notes.

“It doesn’t mean that you have to have a certain look to perform at the highest level,” she says. “It is just that possessing some of these stereotype characteristics might make it a bit easier to fit the mould. That could be a problem.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.