Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Do We Equally Value Warmth and Competence in Leaders?

Do We Equally Value Warmth and Competence in Leaders?

December 11, 2018

This question sparks great debates in my leadership classes. Many argue that competence is critical to “getting the job done” so as a skill it must edge out warmth. Others rebut that without warmth, do we really want to work with that leader? After all, leaders can’t get much done alone. So, warmth plays an important part in the mix to the extent that it must be an equal partner. Or, is it more than equal?

Warmth as Giving

In his book, Give and Take, Adam Grant (Wharton University) describes researcher Shalom Schwartz’s findings on the values and principles that matter most to people cross-culturally:
  • ·         Helpfulness (working for the well-being of others)
  • ·         Responsibility (being dependable)
  • ·         Social justice (caring for the disadvantaged)
  • ·         Compassion (responding to the needs of others)

In Grant’s view, these behaviours together reflect an orientation toward giving. In the many case studies he describes, such influencing behaviours are contagious in groups and teams. They create an environment of reciprocity which in turn boosts collaboration and productivity.

Warmth as the Conduit of Influence

Harvard University’s Amy Cuddy in her book Presence concurs that warmth is the conduit of influence –the medium through which trust develops and ideas travel. We seem to have a built in survivor and belonging sense that consistently picks up words and signals linked to warmth faster than to competence. Yet we tend to evaluate ourselves on competence first but others on warmth! According to Amy Cuddy, if we put competence first, it undermines relationships, the necessary bonding essential for real teamwork. Thus, the balance is toward a genuine caring for others (warmth) that fuels a strong partnership with competence. 

Grant characterizes this as powerless communication used by great coaches in various sports arenas and successful leaders anywhere. Why? It sparks the sharing of ideas, innovations and ultimately group performance. The skills show up as asking for advice, showing vulnerability (not being a know-it-all with a big ego), and being genuinely interested in learning from and supporting others. Those who also study leadership effectiveness echo Grant, using the terms humility and curious to describe how warmth impacts others.

Will AI Supplant Warmth?

As we move increasingly toward an AI era of robots, self-driving cars and big data management in general, how will the balance of warmth and competence play out? Columbia University’s Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an International guru on leadership development, predicts that the soft skills will become even more crucial. In his view, AI will increasingly take care of the raw cognitive processing of facts and information. The agile parts of leadership - curiosity, emotional stability, humility, adaptability, vision and constant engagement (with, for example, front line workers who likely know more than you do) will supplant an “I am the decider” leadership. 

The Tango

What’s the take away then? Of course competence is critical. But without being leavened by warmth, competence will have less opportunity to grow and be in sync with what people want and need to bring their best selves to any challenge.

Perhaps the warmth/competence relationship is like dancing the Tango. It is a partner dance with diverse influences from African, Native American and European cultures. The Tango’s origins - musical gatherings of slaves and the lower classes in Argentina and Uruguay in the 1880s – speak to the need for belonging, inclusion and community. To this day great Tango dancers entertain, inspire, lift spirits and bring people together. Prowess at the Tango for its best effects thus is essential. But, without a huge dose of warmth, how could anyone competently dance the Tango? 

Linda Pickard is an organizational psychologist, experiential educator and coach.