A few years ago I remember reading a study from researchers at the University of Kent, which claimed to have found the perfect face for leadership success at work. They produced a photofit picture of the supposed perfect face and to be honest; the two faces (male and female) looked more likely to appear on Crime Watch than in the boardroom.
They’re far from alone, however, in looking at the science of faces. For instance, a University of Wisconsin paper suggested that men with wider faces tended to produce better financial results for their employer than bosses with narrower faces. Another suggested that if people thought a face belonged to a tall person, they’d be regarded as better managers.
A third, this time from researchers at the University of Munich found that an attractive face has a big influence on political success. You might be forgiven for thinking this is all a bit far fetched. I mean looking ’right’ is surely no compensation for poor ability, is it?
Panu Poutvaara, author of the last paper, suggests that it is more likely that we are prepared to give people the benefit of the doubt to those with the right kind of face. This ’marginal gain’ may ultimately prove the difference between success and failure.
"I think it is hard-wired," he states. "Good looks also seem to help in [facilitating] more successful communication."
So, if the shape of your face matters, what kind of face is the best one to possess? As with most studies into beauty, a symmetrical face is widely believed to be a sign of a healthy individual. Studies have also highlighted the valuable role our eyes play, with bigger eyes generally seen as better.
The importance of not getting too hung up on looks
In reality though, we’re generally pretty adept at noticing even the smallest differences in looks between one person and another, whether it’s the space between our eyes or the breadth of one’s shoulders.
It’s probably worth retaining a dose of perspective and not get too wrapped up in the findings of particular studies, especially if you haven’t been blessed with Hollywood looks yourself. People may well judge you on the way you look initially, but there are many other facets that go into becoming a great leader that you have firm control over, whether that’s the way you dress, the way you carry yourself, even the way you shake hands.
Nevertheless, it seems likely that the way our looks influence the perceptions people have of us will continue to be studied in a bid to raise awareness of these biases within us. Poutvaara for instance, suggests his own paper has been a crucial tool in better understanding how democracies work.
"It’s helpful to voters. If people are aware of this tendency, they can take it into account. They may think about the stereotypes they may be using and may be less likely to use it because they’ll think, ‘Am I being influenced by the looks or is my decision based on substance?’" he suggests.
Whether that works in the office, however, I’m not so sure.