Leadership and the power of smiles in non-verbal communication

Did you know that face perception is one of the most evolved visual competence in individuals?

According to research (Researchers Crivelli and Fridlung, 2018), the human face is not only crucial for human identity, but also serves as a great tool for social behaviour, influence, and interactions. Our facial displays can influence the behaviour of the people around us, and as such,  face perception is thought to be an advanced cognitive ability. 

As you’ve probably noticed, nowadays we’re surrounded by facial displays of leaders, be it on TV, Newspapers or Social Media. Therefore, it’s helpful to try and understand how facial displays communicate leadership abilities. To this extent, I figured we get started with smiles and asses how much influence these have in leadership abilities. Let’s dive in!

As human beings, we are innately capable to perceive leadership effectiveness via facial cues. Previous studies showed that children were able to correctly identify successful political leaders, thus confirming that this ability is not trained or learned (Antonakis & Dalgas, 2009). Pretty cool, right? However, before we make a link between leadership perception and human face, it is important to consider whether these are universally recognised or bound to culture. Furthermore, if we have an innate leadership recognition, could this be universally applied to displays of leaders?

According to Darwin’s evolutionary theory, universal facial expressions are thought to be based solely on emotions. Although cultural differences play a great deal in facial behaviours, Ekman and Friesen (1967, 1969, 1971) found 7 universal facial expressions that are linked with distinctive emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, contempt.

 Although facial expressions are thought to be linked with internal emotions, researchers conclude that these are used as a means to effectively communicate with others. If we look at smiles, for example, they were believed to express happiness, whereas other researchers (Crivelli & Fridlung, 2018) believe that they are actually used to influence affiliation in the interactant.

Think about this for a second: how often do you smile as a means to interact and affiliate with each other, regardless if you feel happy or not? And then, of course, we don’t only smile in social interactions, we also smile when we are alone, right? 🙂

We grew up as children learning that a smile equals happiness. We then learn, as adults, that this is not always true. A smile can mean many things. For example, we smile when we’re happy but also when we’re sad, we smile when we’re uncomfortable or when we’re embarrassed!

Researchers Rychlowska et al. (2017) found that there are three types of smiles and they act as basic social function (rewards smiles operate as reward behaviour, affiliation smiles as social bonding, and dominance as hierarchy of negotiation). Also, every one of these smiles are found to be linked with other muscle movement in the face! For example, reward smiles are associated with eyebrow raising, affiliative smiles with upper-lip pressing, and dominant smiles involve nose wrinkling and upper-lip raising. 

 In case you’re wondering right now why are all these important, here’s a few reasons to consider:)

A couple of years ago researchers used employees of a large company to take part in professional development sessions and were presented with either a static or a dynamic video of a professional actor that either smiled or frowned while interacting with another person. 

What they found was that that higher leadership attribution was assigned to the individual who exhibited a smile. On the contrary, frown displays were associated with tyranny. Thus, based on this research, we can conclude that smile displays play a great role in positive leadership judgements (Trichas et al., 2017). 

Also, as we stressed at the beginning of this article, human-facial displays of leadership have a ubiquitous role in our lives, so it is important to understand how these communicate leadership abilities for various reasons. Firstly, political campaigns, such as the US presidential debates, contribute greatly to the global level (Ordway & Wihbey, 2016). Secondly, the status of candidates tends to be dependent on the degree and type of televised coverage (Stewart et al., 2018). Lastly, they are a great source of information to analyse different facial expressions and their influence on behaviours in an 1-1 format (Bucy & Bradley, 2004; Stewart et al., 2009).  

The non-verbal communication of politicians is believed to convey only in gestures of signal reassurance, evasion or threat (Bucy, 2018) and based on the research conducted by Senior et al. 1999, smiles, in particular, offer information on the type of leader one is. We found that quite intriguing. 

Facial expressions are explained as the greatest nonverbal communicator, since us, humans, are pretty good at simulating a facial display linked with an emotion that is not actually experienced by us (Ekman & Keltner, 1997). However, facial displays are also a great source of studying nonverbal leakage! Nonverbal leakage are quick (0-200ms) and uncontrollable facial displays called micro expression, that convey secret information about how a person truly feels!

In case you’re wondering, the most common tool for facial displays analysis is FaceReader – an automatic facial expression recognition software with advanced analysis and reporting function, being able to detect micro-expressions. FaceReader is used by over 600 universities, research institutions, companies around the globe in research areas including psychology (Fanti et al., 2015), education (Harley et al., 2015), and marketing (Chan et al., 2014; Jiang et al., 2019). The programme labels face expressions based on the seven basic or universal emotional categories described by Ekman including: Happy, Sad, Angry, Surprised, Scared, Disgusted, and Neutral (Ekman & Rosenberg, 1997) (See Figure 1).

Figure 1  FaceReader analysis on HRC facial displays

Figure 1 FaceReader analysis on HRC facial displays

Gender differences

More and more women are taking part in politics, hence, we thought it would be interesting to assess it from a gender difference perspective too. 

According to evolutionary theory, during social interactions, males will typically display more behavioural dominance, whereas females are expected to display more behavioural affiliation (Hess et al., 2005). Dominant gestures often involve head shaking, sitting in a closed posture, and using closed questions and directive remarks. On the opposite end, affiliative gestures involve laughter, sitting in an open position and posing open questions among others (Luxen, 2005). 

 The term affiliation refers to the psychological need to associate with other people. High need of affiliation involves building and maintaining strong inter-relationships by making other people content. During a demanding interaction, women were found to manifest more affiliative gestures. 


These assumptions could alter the perception of emotions in others. For example, children as young as five consider a baby who is crying being angry, only if it is a boy! (Haugh et al., 1980). Moreover, individuals tend to be more acceptable of men’s anger than women’s (Brody & Hall, 2000). In addition, women are also expected to smile more than males, and they may be perceived in a negative manner if they smile less (Halberstadt & Saitta, 1987).

Also, we found quite interesting that based on the status cue theory, one would expect an appropriate response to the perceived display. So, displays reassurance (happiness) are expected to evoke in the observes affiliative bonding and thus reducing the chance of responding with anger; aggression (anger) to provoke defensive displays (smiles, raising brows); and lastly, communicating threat/dominance displays (lowered brows) would signal submissive displays in an observer (raised brows, smiles). And guess what? If a social exchange differs from this expected pattern of results could arise negative judgements from a group of observers i.e., the voting public! (Keating, 2018)

Body language and smiles, in particular, as we’ve seen, are pretty powerful aspects that we should consider in our daily interactions, more so when non-verbal communication makes up for  over 60% of our communication, depending on context (Mehrabian and Ferris, 1967). Next time you’re interacting, either at networking events, with friends, your team or even total strangers on the street, it’s worth taking a few moments to analyse your reactions, smiles and body language overall. At the end of the day, they say smiles are universal 🙂 

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