Saturday, May 15, 2021
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How well do nonprofit groups’ CEOs lead? You may be able to see it in their faces.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. But you can apparently conclude something about a CEO’s performance by his or her facial features.

Past research has showed that CEOs who have physical characteristics associated with power or dominance – things such as a big mouth or a more widely shaped face – have been linked with better-performing companies. Yet a new study shows that when it comes to chief executives of nonprofit organizations, the opposite appears to be true: Those who appear less powerful to people actually tend to have more success.

For the study, recently published online in the journal Perception, two University of Toronto researchers asked people to rate photos of the faces of 100 CEOs of top nonprofit groups – all white and male to keep things consistent – on four dimensions: dominance, likability, trustworthiness and maturity (or how baby-faced their features appear). It then grouped dominance and maturity together to create a “power” score for each CEO and combined the other two traits to judge a CEO’s “warmth.”

Separately, it asked another group of participants to judge how well they thought the men in the photos would perform as leaders, based on appearance alone.

The researchers then compared their respondents’ ratings to calculations in a Forbes magazine ranking of such metrics as each nonprofit group’s fundraising efficiency (how much private support is left after expenses) and charitable commitment (services offered as a percent of total expenses). In no cases were respondents told that the people in the photos were CEOs of nonprofit groups.

What the researchers found: Unlike in past studies linking dominance and the performance of for-profit CEOs, nonprofit leaders with the highest “power” ratings were linked with less success. In other words, those who looked more likable or trustworthy performed better on the nonprofit metrics. The more powerful-looking CEOs had significantly lower “charitable commitment” scores and marginally lower scores on fundraising efficiency and the total funds donated to charity. Those with the highest ratings for “leadership” also fared more poorly on the metrics, as well as on such things as total revenue and total expenses.

What’s happening here? “Among for-profit organizations, people who look more dominant are doing worse,” one of the authors, University of Toronto associate professor Nicholas Rule, said in an interview.

In the business world, people who are viewed as aggressive or assertive are linked with success, whereas in the nonprofit world, those thought to be good at building relationships appear to be viewed as having the upper hand. If their faces seem more approachable, Rule says, “that’s possibly going to make them seem like a more trustworthy investment. If they’re extremely dominant or evil looking, you’re not going to want to donate them money” as much.

It’s not that nonprofit groups’ boards are necessarily picking CEOs who look nicer, Rule says, but that those who have a more likable or trustworthy appearance could advance more easily – whether through promotions based on perceived skills or through better actual performance, driven in part by donors’ or outsiders’ perceptions. “It’s the fit argument,” he says. “If someone looks the part, they’re going to have advantages, and this can start extremely early.”

Although Rule’s past research in business, law and U.S. politics has shown a link between dominant appearances and perceived leadership, there is at least one place where leaders who exude warmth do better: in some Asian cultures.

“In a study we did looking at electoral outcomes in Japan, we find that warmth is what predicts success rather than power,” he said. “Our default, when we think about leadership, is to think about dominance. But when you ask people to consider the context, they make a change.”

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