Would you rather be competent (i.e., skilled and successful) or warm (i.e., helpful and friendly)? The good news is that you can be both. And importantly, the combination of competence and warmth leads to myriad benefits at the levels of personal development, employee growth, and organizational success.
For instance, research shows that consumers think about brands as they would people–evaluating them for warmth and competence, and preferring a combination of these traits. Brands in turn have been known to selectively emphasize or downplay warmth- and competence-related brand characteristics, to great effect. Harley-Davidson famously embraces an “outlaw” ethos associated particularly with high competence, but perhaps with a lower premium placed on warmth. Their rough-and-tumble image has helped them to succeed because the personal archetype they emulate strikes a chord with investors, partners, and customers, especially those who see themselves in the same way.
Another example is found in the brand image of Samuel Adams, known for billing itself as an “underdog” brewer having risen from obscurity. Perhaps in contrast with Harley-Davidson’s rugged corporate persona, the underdog archetype pulls at our heartstrings by portraying a disadvantaged individual who overcame by stealing the hearts of customers, eventually becoming a familiar household name. However, as it requires much competence to evolve from rags to riches, the Sam Adams brand image nicely blends both warmth and competence, commanding the affections of many different types of consumers.
Yet people tend to believe there is a tradeoff between competence and warmth – akin to being feared or loved. Not only is this assumed tradeoff often inaccurate, it can lead to negative consequences. For instance, it causes us to think rigidly about people’s unique skills and character traits, and affects assignment of tasks and resources.
This can be particularly harmful when creating a diverse and inclusive workplace, because Black, female, and lower-status workers tend to be stereotyped as warm but incompetent. In management, this may translate to less accuracy in assigning people to jobs that match with their unique skills. It may also cultivate an environment of distrust, with cold “thinkers” selfishly co-opting the generosity of “feelers” for personal gain. Interpersonal connection and appreciation of individual differences are the antidote, but it is impossible to establish these while believing strongly in the warmth-competence binary.
Busting the warmth-competence dichotomy will help you to become a more accurate and nuanced judge of character and capability, build a more supportive workplace, and stimulate employee growth and performance at all levels. So how can you recalibrate how you or your organization think about competence and warmth?
Integrating and supporting the development of warmth and competence at work will involve making changes to your company’s overarching value system, to evaluation practices, and to the way you interact with colleagues personally. In short, you will learn how to:
- Bust the dichotomy: Recognize that competence and warmth can go together,
- Assess how warmth and competence are useful in your workplace,
- Model warmth and competence,
- Integrate warmth and competence into your company philosophy, and
- Evaluate employees on both warmth and competence
As always, our researchers have searched through dozens of peer-reviewed articles from organizational psychology, social psychology, and personality psychology to provide you research-backed suggestions for using warmth and competence to boost employee growth.
Bust the dichotomy: Recognize that warmth and competence can go together – and it’s best to have both
Imagine a person named Jordan, who is described by coworkers as precise, highly skilled, methodical, future-oriented, strategic, and most of all, successful. In short, Jordan is very competent. How warm do you think Jordan is?
Now think of Sam, who is friendly, attuned to the emotional needs of their team, and enjoys helping others. In short, Sam is very warm. How competent do you think Sam is?
Most people rate Jordan relatively low on warmth and Sam relatively low on competence. As noted above, this is because people perceive an implicit tradeoff between warmth and competence. That is, when told about someone like Jordan who is highly competent, we assume that person isn’t very nice. When told about an individual described as warm and compassionate, we assume lower competence. In any case, we apparently take note of missing information and assume the worst. In the marketplace of social and reputational capital, no news is bad news.
Once we are made aware of our implicit assumptions about other people, we can work to recalibrate those assumptions – and doing so is vital to the social environment and productivity of your workplace. Recognition that warmth-competence dichotomies are often inaccurate can reduce stereotyping and improve the effectiveness and flexibility of our thinking. And, even though people vary in their levels of warmth and competence, it’s useful to bring out the best in people no matter where they fall on such a spectrum.
So how can we overcome this natural tendency to believe competent people aren’t very warm, and warm people aren’t very competent?
Look at the data. Of course high competence is necessary to excel at your profession, but you may be surprised to learn that data shows many top performers are also viewed as warm. In fact, one study of over 50,000 leaders found that as managers move up in seniority, the importance of warmth appears to be even more pronounced. And authorities in other professions – including surgeons and expert witnesses at trials – are often perceived as high in both competence and warmth.
Moreover, organizations that showcase both warmth and competence also have better business outcomes and foster employee growth. For example, research has found that:
- Leaders who are considered both warm and competent are often the most effective at administering high-performance work systems
- Colleagues who are warm and competent decrease turnover intentions
- Employees who are both warm and competent are more likely to gain cooperation from clients, and
- Medical doctors who are perceived as both warm and competent have better patient interactions and higher patient satisfaction.
Think about exemplars. Simply paying attention to examples of people who defy our expectations can decrease stereotypes. So take a few moments to consider people you know of who are both. Some examples might include:
- Pele, John Madden, and Shaquille O’Neal
- Steve Wozniak and Satya Nadella
- Jacinda Ardern and Eleanor Roosevelt
- Princess Diana and Melinda Gates
- The Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela
- A friend, colleague, or mentor who is very successful and also kind and welcoming
By using these thought devices to deconstruct the imaginary binary between warmth and competence, you will become more cognitively flexible in your thinking about such constructs. This will allow preconceived assumptions to give way to a more nuanced outlook.
Assess how warmth and competence are useful to you and your organization
Before we get into creating a workplace that encourages both warmth and competence as pathways to employee growth and success, it’s important to assess how these constructs are useful to you and your specific organization.
How is warmth useful? Let’s start with warmth. Research finds that interpersonal warmth is an indispensable component of social cohesion, linking expressions of gratitude with the development of social comfort and feelings of affiliation.
Benefits to you and your group. But the benefits of warmth can still vary between work environments. So think about how warmth could benefit you or your organization. People might have slightly different notions of what makes someone warm, but here are a few possibilities, along with potential benefits:
- Having an air of approachability – may encourage others to ask questions and share information and ideas.
- Having the ability to effortlessly make others feel comfortable – may increase team cohesion and encourage creativity.
- Putting others before oneself – may increase the overall success of your organization.
- Paying close attention to people’s strengths and needs – shows people that employee growth is valued, and motivates team members to give back to the organization in turn.
Different ways of showing warmth. Be sure to consider different ways that people can express warmth, and how each way might be helpful. Extraverts might characterize warmth in a more overt and demonstrative manner, looking to explicit affirmation and outward emotionality as cues. Introverts might prefer to quietly exude “good vibes.” Make sure your idea of what constitutes warmth doesn’t leave out unique styles of expression.
How is competence useful? You can now use the same types of questions to evaluate your relationship with competence. What does competence mean to you? To what degree do you expect competence from your coworkers? What does that look like, and how can it benefit yourself as well as your larger team or organization? You might consider:
- Specific skills, abilities, or knowledge
- Leadership or organizational capabilities
- Commitment and willingness to work hard
- Good judgment or wisdom
- Objective measures of success (e.g., sales volumes, products completed)
Assessing warmth and competence. Now that you’ve unpacked the meaning and benefits of warmth and competence, we can turn to assessing them in yourself and your organization. Try to answer the following questions:
- Would you consider yourself or your organization warm/competent? Is there room for employee growth in this regard?
- How do you demonstrate warmth and competence to those close to you? How could you extend such habits to the workplace (if you wanted to)?
- What cues do you look for when receiving warmth or assessing competence in others? Are there cues you might be missing, or new information you could consider?
- Are your expectations in receiving warmth realistic? How could you change them to include the unique warmth-giving habits of extraverted and introverted people alike?
- Are your methods for assessing competence as good as they could be? What other ways could you use to identify competencies in yourself and your team?
Bonus: When you’re done thinking these through, have a friend, colleague, or family member answer as if they were you. You might find it valuable to see how you and others are perceived.
It may also be important to have your colleagues try to answer the same questions. That way, you can make sure not only that you are on the same page concerning the warmth and competence levels of your organization. This is also a valuable tool for assessing any contradictions between how individuals demonstrate warmth and competence.
Having performed an assessment of how warmth and competence fit into your organization will also prove indispensable for the following steps. But before putting these constructs into practice, it’s vital to understand how they apply to your particular workplace.
Model warmth and competence
Now that you’ve assessed your warmth and competence, how can you boost them in the workplace environment? The first step is to personally practice simple behaviors. Over time, displaying these practices not only boosts your own warmth and competence but helps establish norms in your organization that encourage others to increase their warmth and competence too.
Begin by identifying three specific ways of honing each skill. For example:
- Get to know one new coworker per week. Consider asking them out for coffee or just ask them a few questions about themselves or their weekend at your next meeting.
- Give more compliments.
- Check in with employees to make sure they aren’t overstressed.
- Increase sales by 20% compared to last month.
- Learn a new skill this quarter.
- Bargain for a better job title.
For each skill, make your goal SMART – that is, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timed. Check out this post on reaching goals related to employee growth.
It is critically important to show coworkers that warmth and competence are core company values by expressing both qualities in your interactions. They will help you to connect with colleagues on emotional and professional levels, and people will feel comfortable around you as well as motivated to learn from you concerning their own employee growth.
Integrate warmth and competence into your company philosophy
As well as integrating warmth and competence more in your personal day-to-day behaviors, articulate them publicly as explicit company values that are not opposed to each other. Why not be direct with your intentions?
Further, research has found that companies projecting a warmth- and/or competence-oriented brand persona are significantly more likely to attract and retain the interest and loyalty of clients. Specifically, warmth-projecting brands enjoy higher purchase intent and customer loyalty than brands that are not seen as warm, and competence-projecting brands do better on these measures than competence-neutral ones. So, if each of these brand characteristics is independently associated with company success, it can’t hurt to emphasize both for bigger results (just like our friend Sam Adams).
This step is about using a bottom-up approach to build warmth- and competence-based qualities at the brand level. A couple of tips:
- During prospective employee interviews, directly articulate warmth and competence as company values. Consider asking job candidates for examples of times when they have been warm and competent. Ensure candidates want to be part of a team that values both hard work and skills (competence) and creating an inclusive, supportive (warm) work environment.
- Design training programs to emphasize the importance of both traits. You could include the following example statements in training videos and manuals:
- “At (company), it is important to us that you not only deliver professionally, but also contribute to a collegial team environment and meet your individual goals for employee growth.”
- Repeat the link between competence and warmth
- “Employee-of-the-month selection will depend on factors such as quarterly sales, cooperation with coworkers, and being on time.”
- Acknowledge excellent performance alongside warmth. For example, when congratulating team members for their successes, also point out (ideally in front of others) how they are also friendly, generous, or honest.
Be ready to explain to coworkers and prospective employees why endorsing warmth and competence is of such importance to you and your organization. Once these values are publicly articulated as integral to your company philosophy, shareholders and clientele will be primed to expect these ideals embodied in action.
Evaluate employees on both warmth and competence
In addition to incorporating warmth and competence into your organization’s philosophy, be sure to systematically evaluate employees on warmth as well as competence.
In the product-focused economies of today, it is all too easy to leave warmth out of the equation when evaluating employees. This is probably because we are dependent on quantitative measures of performance and employee growth; quarterly sales are easier to compare than good vibes. We keep data on worker attendance and projects completed, but not necessarily on what workers add to the social or intellectual environment of a workplace and how they stimulate employee growth in those around them.
Recall from earlier the importance of defining how warmth and competence apply to your organization, and considering how different personality types can express warmth. This will guide the manner in which they are evaluated. Refer to the steps below:
- Refer to your definitions of warmth and competence from Step 1.
- Develop evaluation items that cover warmth and competence, if you don’t already have them. Examples of warmth-gauging items:
- Employee brings an optimistic attitude to work
- Employee helps new hires feel comfortable
- Employee gives time to help others meet their employee growth goals
- Examples of competence-gauging items:
- Employee’s quarterly sales at or above expected value
- Employee’s work attendance is satisfactory
- Employee continually improves their skillset and learns new information quickly
- Inform employees of relevant changes to evaluation methods, emphasizing the rationale behind incorporating warmth-related metrics.
- Invite feedback on the new measures from employees, and be prepared to meet any suggestions flexibly and openly.
These initiatives will create explicit awareness among employees that warmth and competence are valued as complementary workplace ideals. They will also bring managerial attention to building a workforce that is highly cooperative and empathic, as well as precise and highly talented.
Recap of promoting employee growth: how to build a competent and warm workplace
Now you know how to integrate warmth and competence at different levels within your workplace. Remember, the ultimate goal is not only to increase both traits throughout the workplace but also to create a value system where warmth and competence aren’t seen as opposed to one another within the pursuit of employee growth.
The reality is that both of these character traits are equally important to the social health and efficacy of a workplace, and one without the other is a recipe for imbalance. A workplace focused mostly on competence risks being cold and having workers who are driven but not necessarily happy or cooperative. People in this scenario might appear cooperative at first blush, only to reveal themselves as strategic and manipulative later on. In an environment like that, it can be hard to know who you can trust or rely on, and that is where workplace relations get hairy.
Here’s a recap of the steps you can take to create a workplace that values and practices both warmth and competence:
- Bust the dichotomy: recognize that warmth and competence can go together. You can be warm and competent at the same time – a killer character combo at work and outside of it as well.
- Assess how warmth and competence are useful to you and your organization. Maybe your team could use more warmth, more competence, or both.
- Model warmth and competence. You’ve talked the talk – now it’s time to walk the walk. Show them how it’s done!
- Integrate warmth and competence into your company philosophy. Because it’s the clearest, most forward way of establishing a top-down value system based on warmth and competence.
Evaluate employees on both warmth and competence. Systematize these ideals within your organization by developing training and evaluation items focused on warmth and competence.