Perceptions of leadership prove cultural

Chinese philosophy has a proverb that reads, “You cannot understand the heart by reading the face.”

However, a great deal of research suggests that human beings do exactly that, sometimes with a great degree of accuracy.

Helen Han and Peter Chen, professors in Youngstown State University’s Williamson College of Business Administration, conducted a cross-cultural study that investigated how college students interpreted facial features of prominent Chinese CEOs.

“Lots of research shows that our physical appearance can tell a lot about us. Our study is based on the idea that we can look at a picture and tell what kind of person you are,” said Han, who pursued her doctorate at the University of Illinois alongside Peter Harms — a professor of business at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the primary author of the study.

The study asked more than 100 American students at one

Midwestern universities to view profiles of Chinese business leaders and rank them based on their perception of several key traits, including perceived intelligence, dominance, supportiveness, risk-taking and creativity.

Harms worked collectively with the two professors to study data.

Harms said pictures were taken from corporate websites or shareholder reports, but he and his colleagues were careful to eliminate backgrounds and context to ensure that the setting of the photos would not contaminate the findings.

The study links subjective data, like how facial features are judged, with objective data, such as how the company headed by that particular CEO performs.

This was further complicated by the fact that certain facial characteristics are viewed differently across cultural lines.

“In America, people tend to think that, if you appear to be dominant, you would be a better leader. But, in Asian culture, we tend to think that, if you appear warm and easy to approach, that would make you a better leader,” Han said.

Han said it would be easy to assume that Americans would perceive Chinese business leaders who appear authoritarian and demanding to be the most successful.

The truth is actually more complicated.

Han said research in China shows that the most successful corporate leaders are those who are willing to take the biggest risks.

“The interesting part is that American students don’t necessarily know this. If you’re not familiar with the cultural norm in China, you may be more likely to select the leaders who appear more dominant as the most successful,” Han said.

The results of the study show that, while westerners may be able to effectively pinpoint personalities based on facial features, they are less effective at picking the successful leaders because of the cultural differences between Eastern and Western business models.

“We share facial expressions globally. The expressions are perceived in the same way across cultures. The difference is in what facial qualities equate with success in different cultures,” Han said.

According to the study, while it is possible to use perceptions of personality from photographs to predict the effectiveness of leaders, individuals using a rubric based on Western cultural norms are poor judges of the potential success in Eastern cultures.

“If you want to form partnerships with Chinese companies, even if you want to just buy stocks in Chinese corporations, it’s important to be familiar with the cultural norms of the country before you can make decisions based on personality,” Han said.

Han said she hopes the study will help foster business relationships between Eastern and Western companies by outlining the differences in how different cultures perceive potential success.

Harms said that although the data shows a strong correlation between perceived facial features and personality traits, it will take a lot of convincing before the procedure becomes widely accepted.

“Some people may say these findings are too ambiguous to mean much, but once someone uses it to make money, it will gain a lot more traction,” Harms said.

Han has presented her findings to the local business community and human resources professionals, and it has been well received.

Han had a few cautionary words about relying solely on facial features to judge anything. She explained that this technique should only be used in addition to other metrics.

“If you want to form relationships with Chinese companies, you can’t just look at pictures. You have to examine annual reports and look at lots of other data, but these photos can supplement the other data,” Han said.

Han said future studies could be conducted that further explore the cultural roles by performing the study in reverse and showing pictures of Western business leaders to Eastern individuals and asking them similar questions about facial expressions and perceived leadership qualities.

“We would have loved to have two data sets, one of Americans rating Chinese CEOs and one of Chinese rating American CEOs, but we just didn’t have the time or resources to do that. That could be a great future study,” Han said. 

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