One of the reasons I like writing this blog is because I get to share research that most people wouldn’t encounter and here is a great example.
Recently at the London School of Economics HR conference I was impressed by a keynote speech delivered by Professor Robert Livingston from the University of Sussex. During his talk he outlined his study that suggests that having a babyface can have a positive impact on your leadership aspirations… if you are a member of stigmatised group.
What’s in a Babyface?
Nearly everyone knows someone who has a babyface. We often use it to mean someone who looks younger than their age. But how do you define this in a research study? Professor Livingston and his colleague Professor Nicholas A Pearce of the Kellogg School of Management chose three characteristics:
These three characteristics are exaggerated in children and as humans we have an evolutionary response that means baby’s faces evoke feelings of warmth, trust and cooperation. This specific definition was used in this study in order to focus on the structure of the face and not beauty or general attractiveness (perhaps because other researchers argue that attractive people are more successful in life).
These features are not specific to any particular ethnic group. This means that in theory, anyone can have a babyface regardless of where they are from.
Problems of Having a Babyface
Babyfaced adults can be perceived to be incompetent or weak and a study found that having a babyface might be a liability for those striving to attain high positions of leadership in government.
This doesn’t sound like good news for an aspiring leader, however many of the studies were performed on white males. The lack of diversity in previous studies meant that it was unclear if the results would be similar for other ethnic groups.
Given that blacks are stigmatised because they are often portrayed as a group with low status and low power. Professors Livingston and Pearce hypothesised that having a babyface would benefit black leaders by increasing the warmth and tolerance towards them and reducing any negative emotions that may be targeted at them. Their babyface would act as a disarming mechanism.
A disarming mechanism is a physical, psychological or behavioural trait that reduces the perceptions of threat, fear, envy or resentment. It sends a message that says, “I am not a threat to you. I am not dangerous”. The researchers expected that by having a babyface, black leaders would be able to tap into the evolutionary tendency to generate warmth and trust towards baby faces in order to disarm the negative stereotypes often associated with black people as being threatening or intimidating.
Their study looked at Black CEO’s in Fortune 500 companies and found that the Black CEO’s were significantly more babyfaced than their white counterparts. Furthermore the more babyfaced a black CEO was, the more likely he was to lead a more prestigious organisation and earn a higher salary than a less babyfaced black CEO. They also found that the babyfaced individuals elicited greater feelings of warmth than those that did not.
Multiple Disarming Mechanisms
Does this mean you should begin a cleansing regime in order to have younger looking skin? Or book yourself in for some elective surgery in order to influence your career?
Of course not, but it may be of value to consider if you could benefit from employing a disarming mechanism.
A babyface is a disarming mechanism that individuals have little influence over, but there are others that were suggested: mode of dress, manner of speech and non verbal behaviour.
I’m a person that likes to smile a lot, I do this naturally but I think that this works as a disarming mechanism. Anyone you know who fits my description: a black male over six foot tall will tell you that it can generate predictable responses in particular social circumstances. It’s not scientific but I am now more aware that my smile sometimes acts as a disarming mechanism.
Obama is a great example of someone who uses several disarming mechanisms. His big ears give a goofy appearance that the researchers suggested would act as disarming mechanism, his mode of speech, his smile and gestures all send the message that “I am not a threat to you”.
A disarming mechanism is not intended as a short cut. There are still double standards and invisible forms of discrimination out there. It’s worth noting that the study suggested that aspiring black leaders would still need impeccable credentials, tireless diligence and a track record that demonstrates their competence. Using a disarming mechanism may be the cherry on top that gets you through the door.
Do you know anyone who benefits from having a babyface or any other disarming mechanism? Is it right that a person should you even need to employ one?
Share your thoughts below
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