Are your “implicit biases” influencing the leader selection process?

by Chloe Taylor22 Jan 2015
New research has suggested that leaders in some industries are being hired partially due to their facial features fitting the stereotype of their profession.

The study consisted of a series of experiments in which participants were asked to identify industry leaders by their face alone. Results showed that the participants successfully categorised business, sport and military leaders but struggled with recognising politicians. Leaders were unknown faces from the US, while the participants were all from the UK.

Dr Dawn Eubanks, of Warwick Business School, argues that these simple judgements could also be highly influential during organisations’ selection processes.

“Our findings imply that within business, military and sport, individuals who achieve the highest positions of leadership share common facial features that distinguish them from leaders in other domains,” said Eubanks, who is an author of the study. “The most plausible explanation, in our view, is that leaders are being selected, at least partly, according to how they look.”

According to Eubanks, the research suggests the ideal face of a leader extends beyond fitting the correct ‘type’, needing to also fit the industry or profession.

“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,” she said. “In fact, just having facial features that make one look like a good generic leader might not be sufficient to reach the most prestigious leadership positions in a domain – one may also need to possess facial features that stereotypically ‘fit’ the leaders in that domain.”

She added that it is important for those involved in leadership selection decisions to “not let implicit biases get in the way and ensure that there is a rigorous selection process in place.”

Researchers conducting the study – titled The many (distinctive) faces of leadership: Inferring leadership domain from facial appearance – presented its participants with black and white photographs of two leaders at a time and asked them to place one in a professional category. The images showed just a “cut-out face” of each individual, with the hair removed in order to prevent any giveaways.

The experiments used images of 325 CEOs, 64 army generals, 66 US state governors elected between 1996 and 2006, and 43 American football coaches – highly recognisable faces were removed from the sample.

“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,” Eubanks added. “It suggests that facial stereotypes about business, military and sport leaders may cross national and cultural borders.”

Researchers also investigated whether specific facial characteristics might be representative of certain industries. To do this, a new set of over 900 participants were asked to rate 80 of the leaders’ faces based on attributes such as trustworthiness and likeability.

“Our results indicate that one might be able to distinguish military and sports leaders from business and political leaders by evaluating how warm and attractive they look from their faces, since military and sports leaders were evaluated as looking less attractive and warm than the latter two,” said Eubanks. “Stereotypical looking business leaders were evaluated as having particularly competent faces and military leaders were identified as having more masculine and mature faces than the other types of leaders.”

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