Mano pictures What does a search for the term “business” or “manager” return? Nothing bears the slightest resemblance to a business or a manager. It’s not just that people are attractive. This is what they are doing. Many stock photos feature well-dressed people sitting around a table. One of them was gushing, and everyone else was laughing maniacally, like cult members hearing that carnival is a week earlier.
In other images, the speaker points to a pie chart. Her colleagues were amazed by what they saw. Or how often people shake hands with purpose. Left to their own devices, they would stand in front of the French windows and gaze melancholy at the skyline. what are they thinking Is it about what’s on the pie chart?
Some business life involves sitting around a table. Occasional laughter. But if you want to represent what the meeting actually looked like, one was speaking, two were listening, and everyone else was wearing the deadpan expression of a newly disgraced clergyman. If there were an accurate stock photo of someone working at a desk, its surface would be covered in crumbs and a laptop screen would show its owner’s social media accounts.
Company headshots are the way companies use photography to distort reality. But while stock photos tend to glamorize a business, headshots do just the opposite. They make corporate life seem less fun than it actually is.
Most corporate websites contain galleries of their top executives and board of directors, the product of hours of awkward grooming and posing. The executives wore heavy makeup and were asked to look at the camera with a series of wry smiles. The results are always astounding. Most end up looking like well-dressed hostages. Someone, usually the general counsel, looks so distressed that it appears he or she has just been tasered. One or two avoid smiling altogether: in this case, they’re hijackers.
This awkwardness is magnified if the photographer decides to show more than just a person’s head and shoulders. Pity the executives who are forced to stand in front of the camera, tilting their heads slightly like a giant parrot, crossing their arms and being told to look natural. If you’d ever seen someone standing like this in real life, you’d think “better get over to the other side” instead of “I bet that guy is pretty good at creating shareholder value”.
What exactly is going on? There are some studies that show that profile photos can have useful effects in business settings. Humans are quick to judge others by looking at their faces: for example, people with baby faces are perceived as more trustworthy than those who look older, while more mature faces convey expertise. A recent paper by Stuart Barnes of King’s College London and Samuel Kirshner of the University of New South Wales examines the impact of facial features on the prices Airbnb hosts charge guests. They found that hosts with attractive and trustworthy faces could charge 5% more per night than their peers for similar apartments. Not surprisingly, perceived trustworthiness is more important for small shared accommodation.
But the decisions consumers make in online marketplaces don’t explain businesses’ headshots. Perhaps some people are trying to choose between Disney+ and Netflix by visiting the “About Us” section of their website, but that seems unlikely. Even if executive profiles somehow influence the subconscious decisions of investors and job candidates, it’s not clear which type of photo should follow. Managers are already trying to convey an impossible blend of leadership qualities, from airy confidence to stark vulnerability. Now they have to look like babyface too? No wonder people end up complaining.
So, what lies behind this unusually common practice? Headshots are what new executives show their mothers and what tired executives show recruiters. This is useful for employees who don’t know what the ultimate boss will look like. Leadership galleries are increasingly used as a rough but quick measure of diversity. Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that it’s just what everyone else is doing. It’s weird to have a faceless leadership team. Strange but not impossible. Alphabet lists the names of its board members and avoids photos entirely. You just have to imagine them, shaking your head in wonder at a graph.
Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
Why Blaming Doesn’t Help (January 19)
How to Unleash Creativity in the Workplace (January 12)
How to Have the Most Productive Workday of Your Life (January 4)
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