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businesswoman leader welcomes you with a handshake in her group

Research shows that we determine how we feel about leaders based on two factors: how lovable they are, and how fearsome they are. These two dimensions account for 90% of the impression that a leader makes on us.

Lovability includes things like warmth, communion, and trustworthiness. Fearsomeness includes strength, agency, competence, and confidence. According to a Harvard Business Review article by Amy Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger (titled “Connect, Then Lead”), we care about these two qualities because they answer two important questions:

  1. What are this person’s intentions toward me?
  2. Is he or she capable of acting on those intentions?

I know many leaders who actively work to project strength and competence. I don’t see as many who worry about how warm they seem. According to the research, they are missing the boat.

Leaders who are competent but lack warmth can elicit envy in others. Envy creates both respect and resentment. We will follow that type of leader but judge any missteps harshly. In addition, we don’t trust leaders who don’t seem to care about us. We are more likely to fear them, and fear makes us less creative and less resilient. A leader who inhibits people’s problem-solving abilities can’t be classified as extraordinary.

The research shows that it is better to start with warmth in order to create a positive and lasting influence. Our personal needs are to be listened to, understood, and respected. When leaders meet those personal needs, they help to create trust and the positive relationships upon which great leadership depends.

I found one study by organizational psychologists Andrea Abele and Bogdan Wojciszke particularly telling. When leaders were asked what type of training they would like for themselves, they chose training based on competency and skills. When asked what training others should take, they picked soft-skills training.

In another experiment, they asked leaders to describe an event that shaped their self-image. They listed achievements that highlighted their competency and knowledge – things like earning an advanced degree or a pilot’s license. When asked to describe a similar event for someone else, they chose something that focused on the person’s warmth and generosity – things like volunteer activities and helping others.

I’m not sure why we don’t value compassion and generosity in ourselves. Maybe we believe that we have it already. From working with scores of leaders, and quite a bit of work on myself, I know that we rarely have an accurate self-image.

Here is a quote from “Connect, Then Lead” that helps to explain the power of warmth:

“But putting competence first undermines leadership: Without a foundation of trust, people in the organization may comply outwardly with a leader’s wishes, but they’re much less likely to conform privately – to adopt the values, culture, and mission of the organization in a sincere, lasting way. Workplaces lacking in trust often have a culture of ‘every employee for himself,’ in which people feel that they must be vigilant about protecting their interests.”

The authors are describing psychological safety! One of my favorite soapbox topics! Without psychological safety, teams, groups, and organizations cannot excel. The authors tell us that one way to promote psychological safety is to lead with warmth and show people that we care about them.

They describe the ideal as a “Happy Warrior” who starts by showing warmth and then demonstrates their competence and strength. Cuddy, Kohut, and Neffinger write, “Happy warriors reassure us that whatever changes we may face, things will work out in the end.” Not many people love change, but we face it with more ease when we believe that our leader has our back.

The bottom line is that we willingly follow leaders whom we trust to have our best interests at heart and who also have the strength and competence to be effective.

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