Brian Holtz
Dr. Brian Holtz, Assistant Professor of Human Resource Management

Initial impressions based upon a person’s facial features can significantly impact how we evaluate that person’s behavior, according to research by a professor from Temple University’s Fox School of Business.

Dr. Brian Holtz, Assistant Professor of Human Resource Management, conducted three studies, all of which suggested that people were more likely to accept the actions of an individual whom they initially perceived to be trustworthy.

New York Magazine and the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail recently featured Holtz’s research, which was initially published in the journal Personnel Psychology.

Holtz’s studies draw on prior psychological research demonstrating that certain facial features stimulate impressions of trustworthiness (high inner eyebrows and prominent cheekbones), while others (low inner eyebrows and shallow cheekbones) have the opposite effect.

In his first two studies, Holtz introduced participants to the biography of a fictitious CEO, which included a professional headshot, and then asked participants to gauge the CEO’s trustworthiness. Later, the participants read a description of a meeting in which the CEO announced a temporary pay reduction and were asked to evaluate how the CEO handled the situation. The subjects, Holtz said, were unaware that he had manipulated the CEO’s image to reflect either a trustworthy or untrustworthy face.

The image on the left reflects the characteristics of a face stimulate trustworthiness, while the image on the right has the opposite effect. (Source: Cogsdill et al. (2014). Psychological Science. Retrieved from https://osf.io/c5kme/)
The image on the left reflects the characteristics of a face stimulate trustworthiness, while the image on the right has the opposite effect. (Source: Cogsdill et al. (2014). Psychological Science. Retrieved from https://osf.io/c5kme/)

He found that participants who viewed the trustworthy face, tended to give the CEO the benefit of the doubt and judge the CEO’s actions to be fair. In contrast, participants who viewed an untrustworthy face evaluated the same actions to be significantly less fair.

“In essence, these results illustrate a confirmation bias, such that our initial expectations of others are often confirmed,” Holtz said. “If we expect a person to be trustworthy, for example, then we are more inclined to perceive their behavior in a favorable light.”

Participants of his third study – undergraduate students from Temple University – were asked to write a business-related memo that they were led to believe would be evaluated by a Fox School MBA student. Before writing the memo, participants viewed the LinkedIn profile of an MBA student purportedly assigned to evaluate their memo. In reality the LinkedIn profiles were fabricated to present either a trustworthy or untrustworthy face. In addition to earning research credit, participants were told they could earn a cash bonus of up to $6 depending on the quality of their memo.

Two days after the initial session, participants received a written evaluation of their memo, and were informed that they would receive a $3 cash bonus – “an ambiguous, down-the-middle ranking,” Holtz said. Then, the participants completed a questionnaire designed to assess their view of the MBA student’s evaluation of their work.

“Again, the results suggested that initial impressions of trustworthiness shaped how fairly the participants thought they were treated by the MBA student, even though all participants received the exact same outcomes,” Holtz said.

“Ultimately,” he continued, “the key takeaway point from this research is that we form initial impressions very quickly and, for better or worse, our initial impressions can have cascading effects on how we perceive subsequent interactions with others.”

Research on personnel psychology and organizational behavior has demonstrated how fairness and justice engender trust in the workplace. The relationship between the two has been believed to be reciprocal, where trust is a consequence of the perceived justice – as proposed by the classic formulation of social exchange theory – and gradually expands through positive interactions. For instance, employees will trust their supervisor’s decisions more or less from evaluating the fairness of previous interactions with the supervisor.

Assistant Professor of Human Resource Management Brian Holtz takes this notion one step further and proposes the trust primacy model: a new theoretical framework that maintains that trust is formed prior to the direct interaction with others, hence exerting significant influence on employee perceptions of justice. This suggests that an opinion is formulated before the interactions among the players involved and continues to evolve and grow over time.

For his model, Holtz brings together principles of evolutionary theory, neuroscientific research, and psychological perspectives to build a strong case for the rapid development of trust and its influence on perception, resulting inevitably in preceding direct fairness experiences at the inception of relationships.

In his most recent article published in the Journal of Management, Holtz states that we determine trust through biological and sociocultural cues that can drive inferences of trustworthiness. Some of the biological cues may include facial expressions, eye contact and tone of voice. Sociocultural cues may include clothing, tattoos, credentials and socioeconomic status. Both have an effect on how we build trust toward others. His research supports neuroscientific perspectives in that people’s judgments are quick cognitions that are formed in milliseconds and through as little as a single glance, which help us infer a wide variety of information, such as the intentions of others.

Holtz has built a substantial research record founded on the principles of justice and fairness and their application to the workplace. His previous research provides a strong foundation for his proposed model, which extends existing frameworks and offers a more complete integration of the trust and justice literatures.

Holtz’s trust primacy model is the first theoretical framework to propose specific cognitive processes underlying the effect of trust on perception of justice events. Besides implications for further research, this new model brings awareness to managers and challenges organizations to strive for developing trust through clear signals right at the outset of employment relationships.

This research is reported in:

Holtz, Brian (2013).Trust primacy: a model of the reciprocal relations between trust and perceived justice. Journal of Management, 39 (7): 1891-1923, first published online on January 28, 2013.

Your work meetings are full of employees paying more attention to the text messages on their smart phones than to the individual speaking. You offer a suggestion and notice a coworker rolling his eyes in a condescending manner. You smile at a colleague in the hall who seemingly ignores you. Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. A recent poll suggests that 98% of North-American employees have experienced incivility in the workplace. Organizational researchers describe that incivility, synonymous with rudeness, can take many shapes or forms in the workplace: ignoring or excluding someone, eye-rolling, gossiping, making demeaning remarks to or about someone, or showing little interest in another’s opinion.

If you think that failing to hold the door open for a colleague or making a joke at another’s expense are relatively harmless, researchers at the Fox School of Business at Temple University would suggest that you should think again. In their paper The Effects of Passive Leadership on Workplace Incivility, Assistant Professor and Cigna Research Fellow Crystal Harold, and Assistant Professor Brian Holtz examine the role that managers play in fostering rude behavior.

“We were interested in studying workplace incivility, and more specifically, factors that might promote the occurrence of incivility because let’s face it, just about everyone has either been treated rudely at work, treated someone else rudely at work, or both,” Harold said. “There are people out there who likely think that these sorts of behaviors are fairly innocuous. But available data would suggest otherwise.”

In their research, Harold and Holtz draw from prior incivility research indicating that victims of incivility are significantly more likely to decrease the quality of their work, be absent from the office, and ultimately leave the organization. What’s more, addressing the fallout from workplace incivility is estimated to cost companies millions of dollars each year.

“Because incivility has negative psychological and physical effects on victims and is costly for organizations, it is important that we begin to understand why incivility occurs in the first place. What conditions foster an uncivil work environment?” Holtz continued, “It made sense to us that leadership would be an important and significant variable to consider.”

Harold and Holtz conducted two studies in which they surveyed employees, their supervisors, and their colleagues to determine the role of management in workplace incivility. “We were particularly interested in passive leadership. In literature and popular press, you read a lot about either these amazing transformational leaders at one extreme, or these tyrannical nightmare bosses on the other,” Harold noted. “However, there are many managers who fall somewhere in the middle; who aren’t particularly active, who try to ignore problems, who overlook employees’ bad behaviors, or who are just generally reticent to actually manage their employees.”

Holtz added, “If someone is rude to you at work and your manager does nothing in response, you’re likely to conclude that either no one cares, or that these types of behaviors are acceptable. It is the manager’s responsibility to intervene in the face of workplace incivility. When that doesn’t happen, it creates an environment in which future uncivil acts are more likely.”

Results of their research do in fact support that employees who work under passive managers are both more likely to experience rudeness, and more likely to behave rudely themselves.

“We found that the experience of being treated with incivility coupled with working for a passive manager significantly increased the likelihood that an employee would both behave with incivility him/herself, as well as engage in withdrawal behaviors such as showing up to work late, or even calling out when not actually sick” Holtz explained. “The bottom line is that in the process of doing nothing, these types of managers are actually doing a lot of damage.”

In light of these results, Harold and Holtz offer a number of practical suggestions for
organizations wanting to deter workplace incivility. “First, you have to educate your employees and management that these seemingly harmless behaviors are anything but. Training employees, and importantly managers, to recognize what incivility is, is an important first step” Harold noted.

Companies also need to set ground rules. “Make clear which behaviors constitute incivility, clarify the consequences for engaging in these behaviors, and adopt a zero-tolerance policy. This is where managerial training comes into play. Managers must learn to intervene when employees are behaving badly towards one another, and quickly take punitive action against offenders,” Holtz said.

Harold concluded “At the end of the day, managers have to be good role models. A company’s efforts to curb rudeness will be for naught, if the manager him/herself is the one instigating the incivility.”

Harold and Holtz’s study is in press at the Journal of Organizational Behavior.
—Alexis Wright-Whitley

Porath, C.L., Pearson, C.M. “The Price of Incivility.” Harvard Business Review Jan/Feb (2013).