Business and Management

The Teddy Effect: does having a babyface benefit black chief executives?

The relationship between race, gender and leadership in business is a sensitive, but very important area of research in business studies. As the “Fortune 500” list itself demonstrates, the corporate world in the USA still has a long way to go to be able to show true diversity. Only 15 black executives have ever made it to the position of chairman or chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company, with only seven of them currently active (Fortune).

Organisational flow chart

The link between physical traits and inferences of competence in business is a long-existing area of research in social psychology. Studies by Zebrowitz & Franklin and Gorn, Jiang and Johar both focus on babyfaceness in business.  Prior research indicates that white men do not benefit from features such as babyfaceness and traits such as anger are regarded as positive in white male leaders.  Livingston and Pearce’s study, the first to examine the role of disarming mechanisms (babyfaceness, in this case) for black males in high positions of leadership, helps us understand whether black male CEOs require different traits to succeed. 

The study

This paper by Professor Robert Livingston, et al, explores the role of babyfaceness as a disarming mechanism and a potential key to success among black CEOs. Decades of research has shown that having a babyface inspires trust and radiates warmth. However, it could be regarded as a detriment especially in positions of leadership where it might be a liability (showing weakness and incompetence) among white males (see research by Zebrowitz & Montepare 2005 and Rule & Ambady 2008).

The paper postulates that babyfaceness is beneficial to black leaders who might otherwise be perceived as threatening. Babyfaceness is a disarming mechanism that is regarded counterproductive for both white male leaders and women CEOs for different reasons.

In order to prove their hypothesis the researchers carried out two studies among students to establish whether there is a link between babyfaceness and success among black male CEOs and the same in white men CEOs, then comparing the two groups. 

Methodology

The paper is based on two paid studies carried out among students, where participants had to rate standardised pictures of 40 Fortune 500 company CEOs on physical appearance (inc. babyfaceness) and personality traits. The first study involved 21 students. It also investigated the relationships between babyfaceness and financial compensation using data from the Standard & Poor Compustat/ExecuComp database. The second study had 106 participants and was designed to address the shortcomings of Study 1. It included a training session on babyfaceness and participants were informed that the people on the photos were actual employees of American corporations.

Key Findings

The key findings of the paper are:

  • Black male CEOs rated as significantly more babyfaced than their matched white counterparts
  • Black male CEOs were rated as being significantly warmer than white male CEOs, even though blacks as a group were rated as being less warm than whites as a group. This illustrates that there is truly something unique about the subsample of blacks represented in CEO positions.
  • Babyfaceness significantly correlated with judged salary for black male CEOs with babyfaced black men CEOs perceived as earning higher salaries than mature-faced black CEOs.

The paper concludes that the success of black male leaders is linked to facial cues of warmth, while the success of white male or female leaders is not. A possible interpretation of this result can be that babyfaceness attenuates feelings of anger, envy or resentment among whites who otherwise feel threatened by powerful black males. The findings suggest that black males are more constrained in their leadership style which can lead to increasing self-monitoring behaviour. Further research in this area needs to ascertain a deeper understanding of the unique qualities of black male CEOs and their leadership styles.


Access the paper

Livingston, Robert W and Pearce, Nicholas A (2009) The teddy bear effect: does babyfaceness benefit Black CEOs? Psychological Science, 20 (10). pp. 1229-1236. ISSN 0956-7976