Diapers in the boardroom—though surely the topic of a few off-color attempts at office humor—are not hallmarks of corporate excellence. But a cherub-cheeked babyface in the executive office? Depending on its hue, that face may be a naturally-endowed but subtle tool of an accomplished leader atop a seemingly impenetrable hierarchy.

New research by Robert Livingston (Management & Organizations) and graduate student Nicholas Pearce examines this intersection of face and race in corporate America. Appearing soon in Psychological Science, their work focuses on one particular facet of blacks’ ascensions to power: the physical characteristics of so-called “babyfaces” and their influence on perception and achievement.

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“It’s an interesting paradox for two reasons,” said Livingston of the attainment of corporate leadership positions by minorities. “First, statistically it’s abnormal. Less than five percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women or minorities. Second, there are interesting social theories about group stratification, concerned with whether and how groups organize in hierarchies.”

Theories abound, as does some evidence, regarding factors that limit minority access to power. Researchers cite economic disadvantage and resultant limited access to educational, social, and cultural opportunities. Others point to psychological studies of mental associations between whiteness and leadership that make it difficult for blacks to “fit” the preconceived notion of a leader. Some maintain that members of the dominant, white group, desperate to maintain their privileged status, reinforce hierarchies that discriminate against those who do not “belong” in leadership.

In terms of real earnings and achievement, the more babyfaced the black CEO, the more prestigious was the company he actually led, reflected by both Fortune 500 ranking and annual corporate revenue.

But rather than focusing on the many complex reasons why blacks may not achieve high levels of leadership, Livingston and Pearce sought to focus on the positive. They looked for traits common to blacks who successfully navigated treacherous cultural corporate terrain.

“This is an interesting case of social hierarchy reversal, with African Americans in charge. That’s not ‘supposed’ to happen, so let’s explore how they ascend in the white world to attain, and maintain, those positions,” said Livingston.

Warm, Innocent, and Trustworthy

Many traits of successful leaders transcend racial or ethnic bounds: competence, diligence, credentials that establish intellectual and professional achievement. But what unique, additional traits, the researchers wondered, might blacks bring to bear, by either coincidence or necessity? Guided by decades of research, Livingston and Pearce believed that chubby-cheeked cuteness could play a surprising role.

“Babyfaceness is common across regions, ethnicities, genders—and even species,” said Livingston. “Infants, kittens, puppies—there’s a common progression from infancy to adolescence to sexual maturity. Chubby cheeks, rounder face, smaller nose, larger forehead, fuller, pouty lips; these are hallmarks of babyfaces.”

“And there’s a universal response, across all cultures, to babies,” he continued. “We get wide-eyed; we start cooing. There’s an evolutionary reason to respond to a baby in this particular way: our survival depends on it. If something looks like a baby, we need to treat it like a baby.”

However, these adaptive responses to babies get overgeneralized to adults who happen to have features that resemble babies. The result is that babyfaced adults are treated differently compared with maturefaced adults. For example, babyfaced adults are considered more warm, innocent, and trustworthy. Babyfaced offenders tend to receive more lenient sentences. But babyfaces are also considered signs of weakness. None of these studies of babyfaceness incorporated race and leadership, however. So Livingston and Pearce conducted experiments to find whether and how the babyface influence seen so clearly among whites translates to black leaders.

Non-black women and men were shown forty headshot photographs of black men and white women and men. Though the photographed faces were not recognized by the participants, they were all current or former CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Ten of the CEOs were black men. The ten whites who preceded or followed those black men as CEO were also included, as were twenty other white women and men.

Livingston observed, “The sample size is somewhat small, with only ten African-American CEOs in the Fortune 500. But that’s because it’s not just a sample, but actually the entire population we could find.”

Participants were asked to rate how babyfaced, and also how old, each person appeared. They also rated each in terms of perceived personality traits. For example, how warm did a person appear? How competent would they be as a leader? The participants were also asked to use those same personality criteria to rate, in general, how they perceive blacks and whites. Finally, participants had to guess how much money each person earned.

A Babyface Disarms the Threatened

Cherubic features had a clear influence on professional achievement, both perceived and real. Black CEOs were rated as being more babyfaced, and having warmer personalities, than whites. This included even those whites who achieved the exact same position at the exact same company as their black predecessors or successors. To reach the heights of corporate leadership, it appears that black men must look less maturefaced than white peers.

The more babyfaced the black CEO, the more he was also thought to earn. In terms of real—not just perceived—earnings and achievement, the more babyfaced the black CEO, the more prestigious was the company he actually led, reflected by both Fortune 500 ranking and annual corporate revenue. These perceived and real professional benefits were due to physical appearance, not to perceptions of age—which was not found to be linked to babyfaceness.

Livingston pointed out that while the ten particular black faces in the photos were considered warmer than the white faces, blacks as a group were considered less warm than whites overall. So the visual influence of babyfaceness clearly shifted perception and the playing field. He noted, “To function effectively as an African-American male in the U.S. you must have a disarming mechanism.” Not a tool for the bomb squad, a disarming mechanism is a physical or behavioral trait that eases perceptions of threat. Livingston continued, “This alleviates fears of the ‘barbarian at the gate,’ as they would say in ancient Rome. Facial features like President Obama’s, or the actor Will Smith’s ‘goofy’ ears, can help address those fears.”

But in spite of their cute cheeks, warm personalities, and professional accomplishments, those same black babyfaces, and blacks as a group, were perceived to be less competent leaders than whites.

“If babyfaces are seen as less competent, how could that help blacks?” asked Livingston. “But one African-American CEO said, ‘That makes perfect sense. Something that’s extremely threatening to white males is an extremely competent black man, someone who could do your job.’”

A Babyface Handicaps White Earning Power

While the benefits of babyfaceness were clear, they were not universal. While helpful for black leaders, babyfaceness did not influence one way or the other the perceived earnings of whites. And it appeared to present a real handicap to white CEOs, with the most babyfaced of the bunch relegated to lower-rated corporations in terms of revenue and Fortune 500 ranking.

One shudders to think, however, of a world in which parents tuck their children into bed with stories of plastic surgeries and professional aspirations. Aside from their faces, what other tools can leaders draw on for success?

“Babyfaceness was easy to test. But we didn’t actually measure the leaders’ behaviors, how good they were,” acknowledged Livingston. “Now we’re trying to get into companies to study actual leadership styles.” To this end, he made clear that while facial features may present natural advantages or obstacles to some, there are many other behavioral traits that can be developed and used by most anyone. “There are other mechanisms thought to help minorities function and achieve without stoking envy, resentment, fear. For example, some point to [U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Clarence Thomas or [Former U.S. Secretary of State] Condoleeza Rice as people who internalize some shared ideology with the dominant group, and are therefore seen as non-threatening.”

To illustrate the importance of certain personality traits and their differential influences based on majority/minority status, Livingston described data from the 2008 U.S. presidential campaigns. “People were asked to rate the leadership ability, and also the warmth, of various candidates. These responses were related to voting preferences,” he explained.

“The only factor that predicted someone’s vote for John McCain was leadership. But both Obama and Hilary Clinton were preferred based on both leadership and warmth,” he continued. “It’s as if warmth isn’t critical for white males because they’re ‘entitled’ to leadership. But for African Americans and women, maybe they’re somewhat ‘lucky’ to be there, so they must be more humble, deferential, or communal in their leadership style. They can’t just ‘show up’ and tell people what to do.”