Do you study faces?


The makers of the movie Happy Feet Two spent significant effort on the facial expressions of the animated penguins.

According to the animation director, “There’s incredible detail put into the micro-movements around the eye—the movement of the eye itself, the dilation of the pupils, the movement of the head, just the slight pursing of the beak—just to tell you (Mumble) is a thinking character.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 19-20 November 2011)

The movie team obviously knows about the importance of face reading for us humans. So should leaders. 

Dr Frank Salter has been studying faces and the link to human dominance hierarchies for most of his career. Dr Salter recently left the prestigious Max Planck Institute in Germany to return to his native Australia and I interviewed him for this newsletter on the implications of facial expressions for leaders.

Hierarchies are a characteristic of social animals. “Dominance is a way of facilitating group living,” says Dr Salter. “A dominance relationship does not mean aggression, though aggressive signals can be used to establish dominance in the first place. In fact, cooperative living in humans groups is characterised by peaceful, friendly relationships, but with individuals within the group sorting themselves into a dominance pattern.” 

For social species there are benefits from a pecking order for both high-dominance and low-dominance individuals. For the dominant individuals there is preferred access to valued resources (such as food and water) and mating. For subordinate individuals there is the advantage of group living where without the group they would be more exposed—while less well off than the dominant individuals, it’s still better than being alone. 

But life can be complex for social species. We need to read others’ intentions. Signals help. 

The Face
“The face is a specialised signalling site for sending complex social messages,” he says. “For starters, our flat faces make the human face the most revealing of all species.” 

There are patterns of facial expressions that tend to display relative dominance. Dominant individuals are more relaxed (as shown by uncompressed lips) and are happier (as shown by a higher frequency of smiles).

Lower-ranking individuals tend to display their submission by facial expressions such as nodding, downcast eyes and slight nervousness in the face. There are of course wider body-language signals, often specific to cultural traditions, such as letting the high-power person enter the lift first and standing when a high-power person comes into a meeting room. In all cultures and in other primate species the dominant is the centre of attention. In meetings most glances are toward the dominant individual, with people assessing their mood and preferences. 

There’s a payoff of this interplay for both parties. For the dominant, the submissive gestures result in a spurt of pleasure chemicals in their brain—it’s rewarding. For the subordinates, peace and harmony is maintained and they continue to enjoy the support of the alpha. 

Dr Salter makes the point that in a well-functioning hierarchy there should be no contest. With a stable pecking order and the dominant individual secure in their role, individuals can get on living in social harmony.

Aggressive Displays
But problems occur when the leader is domineering and aggressive—dysfunctional use of dominance. Dr Salter explains this over-dominance occurs when the boss expects overt shows of submission, of fault finding by the boss and perhaps screaming and yelling. If being so dominated, subordinate individuals have the undesirable choice of submitting to a tyrant or fleeing. A third strategy is that of counter-moves by subordinates. It’s not only humans who engage in cheeky or even manipulative behaviour often to antagonise the leader. 

The greater payoff for group living is when dominant individuals are relaxed, friendly and affiliative. These leaders still receive the submission payoffs and do so at no real cost to the subordinates. The boss receives maximum loyalty, creativity and effort. 

Tips for Leaders
When a dominant person speaks, others are fixated on their face. What do you want people to read from your face? A reminder to those who wish to lead is to communicate a complex combination of traits, including the “absence of arrogance, over-bearingness, boastfulness and personal aloofness” and at the same time “espouse a combination of unaggressiveness, generosity and friendly emotions.” 

How is this portrayed by our face (and the face reflects our inner emotions so don’t try to fake it)? Here are some tips, beginning with a distinction to bear in mind. “Leaders reassure, followers appease” is a simple rule that makes an important point. A confident, benevolent leader takes care to avoid giving offence by throwing their weight around. The established hierarchy magnifies the impact of every gesture, every word. With all that power it is easy to create uncertainty and thus anxiety and even fear. Reassurance neutralise the boss’s threatening presence. Reassurances can be positive (smiles, praise, some jokes, signs of respect) as well as negative (avoiding emitting inadvertent threats). Some specifics include:

• Don’t compress the mouth—a compressed mouth conveys a threat signal.
• Don’t stare—which is also a threat signal. 
• When talking to a subordinate, tilt the head even by just 5°—which breaks the threat content of gaze.
• Smile—which reassures a subordinate that punishment is not pending. 
• Raise eyebrows in combination with relaxed mouth—which indicates a non-threatening intent.

Apart from a few leaders at the very top of the pecking order (chairs of boards, owners of businesses) most leaders are also subordinate to someone else. What are the tips when in a subordinate relationship?

• Show mild appeasement but not grovelling. For example, when speaking with a superior, refrain from interrupting frequently—let him or her lead the conversation unless you need to make an important work-related point. But grovelling is out. Minimise self deprecation. 
• Nodding of the head is an appeasement gesture (although cultural differences apply here). 
• When replying, take care to leave a dignified silence after the boss has spoken. Even just a split second delay helps avoid the appearance of impertinence. 
• A smile from a subordinate usually signals a willingness to cooperate if it matches the boss’s mood. However, smiling at the leader’s anger or frustration is anything but cooperative. 
• A subtle form of appeasement is to follow the leader’s positive moods (friendliness, humour) and react appropriately to negative moods. 
• The general rule is to avoid taking the lead in a way that challenges the leader. 

If appeasements should be used sparingly by subordinates, they should be positively avoided by leaders because they signal deference. On the other hand assertiveness is occasionally needed because all hierarchies are challenged sooner or later. When personal assertiveness cannot be avoided, for example in reprimanding or firing an individual, it should be delivered with authentic emotions—a mix of sternness and perhaps regret that such action is necessary. Appropriate facial expressions should be displayed by the leader. 

As you become more aware of reading other people, take a moment to reflect on your own expressions and the messages you are conveying. And enjoy Happy Feet Two over the holiday season. My wife is on a mission of seeing all 17 species of penguin in the wild. So far we have seen 14. So, with Jude so passionate about penguins, we’ll be in the queue when the movie opens in Australia on Boxing Day! 

(For references to Dr Salter’s work see “Taking Leaders at face Value” in Politics and the Life Sciences, March 2009, Vol 28 No 1 or his book, Emotions in Command, Transaction Publishers, USA 2008)

Andrew O'Keeffe

[email protected]


Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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