Research demonstrates that 90% of the initial impression we form about people is based on two factors - warmth and competence. It also turns out these two factors are difficult to combine. So how do we demonstrate both warmth and competence as leaders?
Welcome to episode fourteen of the Leadership Today podcast. Each week we provide practical advice to address some of today’s biggest leadership challenges.
This week we are looking at leadership first impressions.
It turns out that 90% of the initial impression we form about a person is around two things - their warmth and their competence. In other words - do I connect with you, and do you know what you’re doing?
It’s important to note that warmth isn’t primarily about being liked - it’s about making a real connection. That you are a real human being that people can relate to on an emotional level.
Competence is about knowing what you’re doing. That you are a leader who is skilled and capable - someone others can respect.
These factors produce two stereotypes of leaders that perhaps you can identify with:
The first is the competent but cold leader - they’re all business, great at what they do, but they just seem to struggle to connect with people. People respect them, but they may not put in an extra effort for them.
Then there’s the warm and friendly but not-so-competent leader - they are great at bringing people around them, but those people gradually drift away when they figure out the leader isn’t up to the task.
These stereotypes assume that competence and warmth sit at opposite ends of a spectrum. That a leader can only be all about results, or all about people, but not both. And many leaders assume that this is indeed the case.
So if they’re forced to choose between the two, it’s perhaps not surprising that many leaders go for the “respected but not connected” version of competence without warmth. That flows into how they communicate and interact with people. Indeed, they have to guard their image of competence, so letting people into who they are as a human being is a risk - and a risk they see as not worth taking.
How does that come across to others? People who take on this competent but cold combination often try to present themselves as an expert. And there’s no shortage of experts - LinkedIn has nearly 6 million people who list themselves as experts in various fields. In fact, LinkedIn lists so many people with “keynote speaker” in their title, that to give each of them just five gigs a year would require there to be over 3,000 keynote speeches every single day. Some people really latch on to the need to lead with their expertise.
The good news is that you can combine the two - it is possible to be seen as both warm and competent. The research suggests that it is tricky, but also possible. And the research also suggests that you should lead with warmth. That making a connection with people matters, and provides a foundation to then demonstrate your competence.
I worked alongside a leader who embodied exactly this combination. He was a lovely guy to work with, but also filled you with confidence that he knew exactly what he was doing. He was incredibly calm in a crisis - his body language and tone of voice even made him seem relaxed. Even when things were going horribly wrong, he was interested in others’ views, and keen to resolve the issue. He didn’t just remain calm himself, but he helped others to calm down. This allowed people to focus on the problem and work towards a positive outcome. They weren’t worried about the leader and his response - they trusted him, they felt connected to him, and they knew he valued maintaining and building connections with his team, even when they made a mistake.
As Amy Cuddy and her fellow researchers put it - “Before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you.”
So here are some ideas of how you can combine both warmth and competence in the way that you present.
Be yourself. Be a real human being that turns up to work with strengths, weaknesses, interests and concerns. Don’t try to be perfect, but do try to become better.
Be interested in others. Take the time to understand where they are coming from - their interests, even their hopes and dreams.
Let people into your head. Share your thoughts and emotions. Sometimes the calm person can appear as if they don’t care enough. Sometimes trying to be friendly can appear flighty. Don’t let people have to guess where you’re coming from and what’s driving your behaviour - let them into your head.
Be prepared to present your capabilities with confidence. Try to capture in one or two sentences what you bring and what makes you unique. Then think about how you present that authentic image of you to others.
And lastly - get feedback. Ask people about how approachable you are, and what you might do to improve this. Ask for feedback about what makes you appear more and less competent.
I hope you find these ideas helpful as you continue to improve the way you lead. As always, if you’re interested in the research, the references are listed in the transcript at our website - leadership.today
And thanks again for those who have taken the time to rate, review and share the podcast with others. It’s great to hear your feedback and to see the hundreds of people who are downloading the podcast each week. We’ll see you next week.
Research used for this episode:
A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition
Fiske, Susan T; Cuddy, Amy J C; Glick, Peter; Xu, Jun.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; Washington Vol. 82, Iss. 6, (Jun 2002): 878-902.
Connect, Then Lead. To exert influence, you must balance competence with warmth. by Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffing. Harvard Business Review July–August 2013.