Executives’ Careers and Corporate Success—How Far Do Looks Go?
How far can a person’s looks go? Whether it is famous movie stars or musicians, public attention is often captivated by the good looks of celebrities. In our day-to-day lives, a person’s features, faces, and voices may capture our attention in a way that is seemingly automatic. We may find ourselves left with lasting impressions of someone’s personality (such as their trustworthiness, warmth, or humility), interests (such as athletics), and mood (such as cheerful or sad)—among other qualities—from brief glances or interactions. The lead in a Broadway theatre production, the star quarterback of your favorite football team, or the CEO of a prominent company may not only be able to play the part, but may also look the part as well.
Is all of this coincidental or do physical and vocal features have more information than meets the eye? As it turns out, there may very well be more than meets the eye. If you have found yourself wondering the same and similar questions, so do many other people. From psychology to political science to economics and business, researchers from a variety of disciplines have sought to understand how one’s physical and vocal attributes (external attributes that describe various qualities of one’s external appearance or external presentation), such as physical attractiveness or vocal masculinity, relate to real-world outcomes. Researchers have found, for instance, that political candidates who appear more trustworthy in photographs are more likely to win elections. Also, economists and psychologists have reported that perceptions of CEOs’ competence, dominance, and facial maturity are related to higher firm profits.
My colleagues and I at DePaul University and Florida State University who study leadership and management were intrigued by this line of research. We systematically examined all of the research that has been conducted on how business executives’ physical and vocal attributes relate to their careers and their organizations’ outcomes. And indeed, we found that such attributes appear to be related to executives’ careers and organizations’ outcomes.
We found the most evidence for relationships between perceptions of executives’ competence, attractiveness, and executives’ actual compensation. In other research, impressions of executives based on their appearance were related to raters’ attributions of leadership ability and success as well as actual measures of their companies’ success, even though those doing the ratings actually knew nothing about the executives. In particular, this means that executives who appear more competent and attractive were assumed to be higher on leadership ability and measures of career and firm success (such as salary and firm profits) and in some instances actually happened to be higher on measures of firm success (such as firm profits). Studies have also reported significant correlations between the appearance of executives’ facial masculinity and a company’s actual risk-taking. Similarly, executives’ vocal masculinity has been linked with companies’ actual risk-taking. It is unclear from this research whether executives’ facial and vocal masculinity matters to risky actions a company pursues or whether companies with higher risk profiles choose executives who appear and come across more masculine. Other research has considered how perceptions of executives’ trustworthiness affect executive selection. For instance, one study reported that companies appoint CEOs who appear more trustworthy in the wake of corporate misconduct. Despite findings connecting physical and vocal characteristics to career outcomes, it remains unclear what processes are really at play.
We can highlight several major conclusions and open questions from our research:
- The research we reviewed revealed different kinds of possible executives’ career and organizational outcomes: individual outcomes such as career success, organizational outcomes such as firm performance, and situational considerations—particularly cultural differences as well as gender and other demographic differences—that might affect how physical and vocal attributes influence executives’ careers and organizations’ outcomes. Perceptions of masculinity among CEOs, for example, may be valued differently in cultures where status and power differences are more important and accepted than in the USA.
- To what extent are a person’s physical and vocal attributes actually good indicators of personality traits such as trustworthiness, competence, and warmth, and to what extent are there mistaken beliefs about such relationships? Biases, stereotypes, and self-fulfilling prophecies (where false expectations reinforce and lead to their confirmation) likely play a large role in the judgments people make about others’ talents and abilities. Cultural norms in society, family backgrounds, the showcasing of masculine stereotypes in sports, and more, can lead individuals to unconsciously develop misguided expectations of others and, more specifically, of leaders. People are also susceptible to making faulty attributions based on unconscious processes that simplify and quicken judgment and decision making. Attractiveness, for example, may produce “halo effects” that lead to more favorable views toward an individual. Alternatively, facial expressions like smiles can allow individuals to make inferences (for example, a friendly person). In the latter scenario, facial cues that signal willingness to interact versus aggressiveness may be informative for social interaction or protection. However, there is not compelling evidence that physical and vocal attributes themselves are important apart from individuals’ biases and perceptions that they may be important.
- If people make judgments affecting others’ lives based on their physical and vocal attributes, the role of biases must be addressed. For example, some research has suggested that women could receive both workplace benefits and penalties based on their physical attributes, depending on the context. More broadly, managers and employees both bring valuable qualities to the workplace and it is important to examine physical and vocal attributes in context given that individuals are a complicated mix of different strengths, weaknesses, and other attributes.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Many issues remain unexplored. For example, are there biases held around leadership prototypes that contribute to the underrepresentation of women and minorities in leadership positions? How heavily do physical and vocal attributes weigh in influencing executives’ career and organizations’ outcomes, compared to other experience, abilities, education, and personality traits?
For Further Reading
Devine, R. A., Holmes Jr, R. M., & Wang, G. (2020). Do executives’ aesthetic attributes matter to career and organizational outcomes? A critical review and theoretical integration. The Leadership Quarterly, 101478. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2020.101478
Richard Devine is an assistant professor of management at DePaul University. His research interests primarily involve the exploration of societal problems and social issues in management, considering both micro and macro level factors that create disparate outcomes for individuals and organizations in society.