Do you hate being stared at? A new study published in The Leadership Quarterly suggests that it may not be your physical appearance that people are looking at, but rather your leadership skills.
In group settings, it is natural for social hierarchies to form. Some individuals emerge as leaders, while others are happiest sitting back and letting other people take responsibility. When a group has no official or initial leader, one or more individuals will typically step in to fill that role. The idea of a leader has been an area of interest for people, with researchers trying to pinpoint characteristics that make one a leader.
Previous research has shown that the leadership role has been assigned to individuals based on a myriad of factors, including height, facial features, body language, and more. This assumes that people can make inferences about leadership by simply watching a muted clip, which this study seeks to test.
Study author Fabiola H. Gerpott and colleagues utilized 18 Dutch participants to observe 42 short clips of meetings taken of people working on a project at an automotive company. Participants were instructed to focus on the social interactions occurring in the videos, and researchers utilized eye-tracking on participants. Videos were coded for nonverbal behavior including body movements and facial expressions.
Results showed that participants spent the most time watching emergent leaders in the clips. “Our findings indicate that the orientation towards emergent leaders can also occur rapidly, automatically, and without much deliberate thought,” the researchers said. “We interpret this attention bias in terms of an evolved mechanism for detecting leadership potential in fellow humans… that has helped human beings in our ancient past to increase their survival chances.”
This relationship had gender differences, with participants looking at male emergent leaders both more often and for longer amounts of time than they looked at female emergent leaders. “Our findings suggest a slight initial attention advantage for male emergent leaders compared to female emergent leaders in terms of observers’ reflexive orientation (i.e., number of fixations) but not with regards to their attentional engagement (i.e., eye gaze duration),” the study authors wrote. “Of note, the effect size for the sex differences in fixation was moderate, and the low number of female emergent leaders in our sample could potentially limit the reliability of our findings.”
A major nonverbal clue was that leaders oriented themselves toward the team more than non-leaders. Both leaders and non-leaders showed friendly facial expressions, but only non-leaders showed any facial cues of nervousness. “We found that emergent leaders, compared to non-leaders, showed a higher amount of active postures, more bodily orientation towards others and less passive facial expressions,” the researchers explained. “We conclude from our exploratory non-verbal behavior coding that emergent tend to make themselves visible through multiple signals of activity.”
This study took strides into understanding if people can see nonverbal cues of leadership. Despite this, it has some limitations. Firstly, the emerging leaders taped were predominantly male, making it difficult to know if the gender differences would hold with a more even gender split. Additionally, previous research suggests that people follow the eye gaze of other people as an evolutionary tool, suggesting it is possible that participants were watching the emerging leaders because the rest of the team in the video was as well.
The study, “In the eye of the beholder? An eye-tracking experiment on emergent leadership in team interactions“, was authored by Fabiola H. Gerpott, Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock, Jeroen D.Silvis, and Mark Van Vugt.