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Why the Resonance of Your Voice Matters

What does a deep voice have to do with job performance?

energepic dot com/Pexels
Source: energepic dot com/Pexels

I’ve been writing on the importance of the voice in leadership communications for many years. In my book Power Cues, I wrote about the key element of resonance in the voice as a tool of leadership that works unconsciously on listeners’ minds to propel people with strong voices into dominant roles and success with teams.

Now there’s a fascinating study that finds that male CEOs with deeper, more resonant voices are paid more – a significant amount more – but only if the boards that decide their salaries are composed of men. The more women on the board, the less a deep voice matters – at least for salaries. Moreover, the more competitive the industry, and the fewer women board directors, the deeper the CEO's voice was likely to be. Unconscious gender-based influences seem to be hard at work in the board rooms.

What’s going on? The general assumption of this sort of study is that people are making unconscious evaluations of the health and strength of the subject by listening to their tone of voice. A strong, deep voice seems to tell us that the person vocalizing is strong and fit – and therefore liable to be a better leader than a sickly person or weaker voice.

We’ve long known that people can listen to voices and decide (again, unconsciously) with surprising accuracy and speed if they are healthy and strong or not. More usefully, apps are being developed which can analyze a voice and hear markers for specific diseases, and do so considerably before other symptoms appear.

Presumably, what we and our apps are listening for, in the case of leaders, is a healthy-sounding voice, which suggests to us a healthy mind and body. Would we want to hire a sickly leader for his or her great skills or experience or leadership qualities? That’s part of the decision voters make in listening to candidates speak: A weak voice at some level suggests to us a weakness in the potential leader that might bode badly for the state or country considering electing them.

But the decision can also go the other way. During WWII, the U.S. re-elected President Franklin Roosevelt three times, presumably calculating that his leadership skills and experience with other world leaders made up for his physical frailty (which his handlers did their best to keep hidden).

Both men and women voted for FDR, of course, so gender was not the deciding factor in his campaigns. And while there has been a great deal of discussion about gender disparities on executive teams, and the small number of female CEOs, we haven’t focused before on the differences in this kind of salary determination process for male and female board members.

Clearly, we have a long way to go before we fully understand the complete role of gender in the executive ranks, especially when it comes to unconscious determinants like reacting to the resonance of a male voice. There’s nothing wrong with wanting your CEO to be healthy, but it hardly seems like acting with dispassionate fiduciary responsibility when billions of dollars are at stake to give raises to the men with deeper voices. And what about opportunities for leaders with various kinds of handicaps?

The study suggests two insights: (1) we have a long way to go before we humans are capable of awarding executive roles to leaders of either gender solely on the merits of their actual value creation – and, (2) until we do, paying attention to the resonance of your voice is a smart career move.