Looking Smart? Look Healthy Instead for Career Advancement

February 11, 201512:00 pm612 views

Every year around this time, people make resolutions to improve their lives and careers. The most common of these typically involve health-related goals such as quitting smoking or losing weight. The next most common might be career goals like finding a new job or getting a promotion. While we tend to separate out career goals from health/lifestyle goals in our minds, in reality there is a lot of overlap.

If you’re looking to set some career goals, then you might think about getting healthier too. New evidence suggests that healthy-looking individuals are perceived as better leaders, even over intelligent-looking people.

The evidence comes from a study led by Brian Spisak at VU University of Amsterdam and published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. The study asked participants to judge leadership potential by looking at faces. Why examine our reactions to faces? Because they lead us to make snap judgments about other people.

To quote the paper, “Qualities such as facial femininity can have a significant impact on who followers endorse as a leader in different situations because these visual signals can serve as a proxy for latent behavioral potential.” Facial femininity, for example, can signal tendencies to befriend or collaborate. Likewise, perceived age can be used to estimate wisdom or experience. Baby-facedness is often, for better or for worse, associated with trust.

In this particular study, the researchers created a collection of simulated faces based on a composite of three undergraduate volunteers (so that no one would recognize a particular person). Four faces were created, all of them clean-shaven white men who were not wearing glasses or jewelry. The researchers then manipulated those faces to make their “person” appear more or less healthy and more or less intelligent, based on previous research on assumptions based on facial features.

The researchers then showed pairs of these faces to 148 participants recruited online. For each pair, participants were given one of four fictional company scenarios and asked to choose the new CEO of the company. The four scenarios outlined the CEO’s primary responsibility, either engaging in an aggressive competition strategy, renegotiating a key partnership agreement with another company, leading a new entry into an unknown market, or supervising the continued exploitation of non-renewable resources.

When the researchers tallied the choices of all the participants, both healthy and intelligent-looking leaders were chosen more often. However, health cues were more clearly influential in choosing a leader than intelligence cues. In 69 percent of choices, participants favored more healthy-looking faces over less healthy-looking faces. The tendency to choose healthy faces was dominant regardless of the scenario presented.

“Overall, our findings suggest that although intelligence may be important for leadership in certain circumstances,” the researchers write, “health […] appears to dominate decision making in all contexts of leadership.” Intelligent looking faces were only preferred over less intelligent looking faces in scenarios that called for diplomacy or original thinking: the renegotiation and the new market scenarios.

The implications of this study are twofold, covering both the organization and the individual. For organizations, the study suggests that a subtle bias may affect leadership succession planning and unnecessarily favor healthy individuals.

According to the paper, “a relatively healthy-looking leader may have a better chance of gaining sufficient levels of followership investment to initiate change. On the other hand, a potential leader who looks relatively less healthy may be over-looked even if they are better suited for the job.”

For individuals, the implications are even more straightforward: get healthy. Spisak suggests, “If you want to be chosen for a leadership position, looking intelligent is an optional extra” only applicable in certain contexts.  Looking healthy “appears to be important … across a variety of situations.” The researchers even suggest this is why modern politicians have put such care into their health and appearance.

If you use the New Year to set new resolutions and craft a development plan for hitting those goals, then resist the temptation to focus just on career or health goals or to separate out the two in your mind. Instead, think holistically. If you’re looking to get that promotion, your health matters just as much (if not more) than the experience and knowledge you plan to gain this year.

See: WorkPro enhancements to focus on healthy workplaces for mature workers 

The original article was published in Harvard Business Review.

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