Why Leaders Are Bringing Sexy Back

An account of attractiveness bias and its effect on leadership perceptions.

Posted Nov 05, 2019

Moose Photos/Pexels
Source: Moose Photos/Pexels

We like people more when they’re physically attractive.

We’d like to think that in the workplace, performance is all that matters. As it turns out, a nice smile or a fit body matters too. This is unfortunate, as aspiring leaders have enough to worry about.

When it comes to leadership, we’d prefer to be judged on merit alone, not breast size or jawline. How can we overcome this unfortunate attractiveness bias? We must first acknowledge what the research is telling us. We can then start meaningful conversations that draw from these findings.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, evaluating the attractiveness of others is inevitable, and it also has utility. When evaluating someone of the opposite sex, physical attractiveness signals health and fertility. Such evaluations offer clues as to whether the person will help us propel our genes forward into the future.

When evaluating someone of the same sex, attractiveness signals power, because attractiveness translates to a higher degree of desirability from the opposite sex. Such evaluations enable us to make better decisions about whether to align ourselves with competing parties.

Royal Anwar/Pixabay
Source: Royal Anwar/Pixabay

In 1994, economists Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle conducted a study on physical attractiveness using 9,268 participants. Their findings illustrated that attractive employees earn 10 percent to 15 percent more than their unattractive counterparts. This “beauty premium” has been replicated in a variety of settings.

For example, physical attractiveness positively relates to the likelihood of being hired, ratings of job performance, and income. Attractive employees are also perceived by others to be more competent, intelligent, and socially savvy. The inverse is also true. Physically unattractive characteristics, such as being overweight, puts employees at a major disadvantage at every stage of the employment cycle. 

Why does this happen? According to the ascription-actuality trait theory, physically attractive individuals are perceived to have certain psychological traits that are relevant to successful leadership, but those psychological traits are not always present for such physically attractive individuals.

Thus, we succumb to the “what is beautiful is good” stereotype. We incorrectly assume that attractive individuals have desirable personal characteristics that allow them to lead successful lives.

Associated Press/Kennedy-Nixon Debate
Source: Associated Press/Kennedy-Nixon Debate

In a widely-viewed televised presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, Nixon, recovering from a hospital stay after knee surgery, appeared frail, pale, and with splotchy makeup. His youthful opponent, Kennedy, was known to practice for debates on rooftops, tanning in the sun, as his brother and campaign manager, Bobby, peppered him with questions. As stated by Presidential historian Robert Gilbert, the well-manicured Kennedy looked “to be radiating health.” 

The polls showed that for radio listeners, the debate was a draw. For those watching on TV, Nixon was slain by Kennedy. Since then, research consistently illustrates that “voters vote beautiful.” Perhaps this helps explain why Donald Trump opts for a comb-over, and Joe Biden has (allegedly) had a facelift

Gage Skidmore/Donald Trump
Source: Gage Skidmore/Donald Trump

Research also illustrates that physically attractive candidates receive higher ratings on leadership ability. Even more fascinating, children seem to exhibit the same instincts. In one experiment, researchers showed photos of election winners and losers to children and asked them to rate who they would pick to be “captain of their boat” after being told a story from the Odyssey. Their ability to select the winner was shockingly accurate.

The beauty premium can also be broken down into more specific components. The most popular being height. Between 1900 and 2008, the taller presidential candidate won the presidency 81 percent of the time. Maybe this is why the 5’9” Macro Rubio commonly wore what his opponents called “man-heels” during his run for the presidency.

Relatedly, in a meta-analysis covering 8,590 leaders across a variety of organizations, height was a consistent predictor of workplace success. A more recent trend has been evaluating the facial features of CEOs. Interestingly, robust or powerful facial features (e.g., higher facial width-to-height ratios) are strongly correlated with perceived leadership ability.

Being attractive, however, isn’t all good news. Individuals rated as attractive are more likely to be rated as vain. The MeToo movement has also perpetuated another downside to being attractive. A recent study found that employees are now 11 percent (females) to 15 percent (males) less likely to hire attractive females, out of fear that they or one of their colleagues will be tempted to act on their attraction inappropriately.

Clearly, this isn’t fair. But it’s also inefficient. There is a preponderance of evidence suggesting that hiring, selecting, and promoting future leaders based on their knowledge, background, and expertise is worthwhile. Alternatively, putting attractive personnel on a leadership pedestal is a faulty cognitive bias. There is no evidence to suggest that attractive leaders have the psychological traits that we ascribe to them.

Being unattractive will never make the list of protected classes from discrimination (e.g., race, color, religion, sex, age, etc.). Nonetheless, organizations should consider drawing from their repertoire of policies and best practices for ensuring cognitive bias doesn’t creep into decision making.  

Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Individuals themselves are also responsible. Awareness is the first step, and it begins by internalizing the findings of this article. The next step is monitoring one’s inner dialogue. We must challenge ourselves to break down whether we favor one person over another given their abilities, or our perception of their abilities given their appearance.

If this article has inspired you to go tanning, inject Botox, or get a breast augmentation consultation, keep in mind that physical attractiveness research is still in its infancy. Research is yet to investigate several areas that will add nuance to what we know about attractiveness in the workplace.

First, the relationship between physical attractiveness and perceptions of leadership potential is assumed to be linear, when it might be non-linear. Many personal characteristics exhibit a too-much-of-a-good-thing effect, such that a characteristic eventually reaches a tipping point and does more harm than good.

Second, it’s unclear whether the physical attractiveness of the rater plays a role. Perhaps the beauty premium is only relevant when the person being evaluated is more attractive than the rater. Along these lines, we are more likely to pursue potential mating partners that are similar in attractiveness, compared to those that are more attractive.

Third, physical attractiveness has typically been evaluated in isolation. Perhaps a beautiful personality enhances, compliments, or supplements the physical attractiveness effect. Alternatively, perhaps being physically attractive is detrimental when an individual’s personality is void of substance.

In prehistoric times, evaluating the physical attractiveness of others played some role in our quest for survival of ourselves and our genes. Unfortunately, we can’t conveniently shed this subconscious instinct in the workplace. We’re human beings; we can’t help it. What we can do is recognize it and do our best to prevent such cognitive biases. If we can, that would be a beautiful thing.