February 1, 2021
Should leaders aspire to warmth or competence?
Over the years a great deal of research has been done on two traits people often use to evaluate others. Research done on these two traits can be traced back to the 1940s and has continued from then to the present. One trait is labeled Warmth—the extent to which a person is friendly exhibits positive intentions toward others, and is trusted, kind, and empathetic. The other trait is Competence—an individual’s intelligence, their ability to achieve, their efficiency, their individual skills, and overall power.
Using Zenger Folkman’s data gathered for over a decade on the 49 key behaviors that differentiate poor from excellent leaders, my colleague Joe Folkman and I sought to determine if these 49 behaviors effectively measure those two traits.
Our data for this analysis comes from 360-degree assessments that, on average, include feedback from 13 raters on the given leader. These raters include managers, peers, direct reports, and others with whom the person has had extensive contact. We utilized a global database of over 70,000 leaders and performed a factor analysis that forced the data into two factors. We then selected the top 20 items from each factor and discovered that these items clustered nicely into the Warmth and Competence dimensions.
Items that factored into Warmth were:
Items that factored into Competence were:
Which Trait is Most Prevalent?
We created indexes on both traits and calculated percentile score based on our total norms. We then analyzed which trait was most dominant for each individual. To be dominant we required a difference score of at least 5 percentile points. We found that the two qualities were quite evenly split. Our data showed that 53.5% of leaders were dominant in Competence and 46.5% were dominant in Warmth. We then examined differences between men and women. Stereotypes of women characterize them as demonstrating more Warmth; however, the data presents a different conclusion. Note in the graph below that based on feedback from others, 59.3% of women were more dominant in competence compared to 53.8% of men.
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Position and Warmth
We next wondered if leaders in top management would be perceived as more dominant in Competence or Warmth, and how those in top management would compare to supervisors. Based on casual conversations we’ve found that most people assume that top leaders would be more oriented toward Competence than Warmth. However, the data shows a different trend. Looking at leaders by position in their organization, we found that 61.2% of top-level managers were dominant in Warmth. We conclude that more top-level leaders have learned that relationships are critical. Consider how negative interactions between Travis Kalanick, the former CEO of Uber, became the start of his downfall. Note also that 67.0% of supervisors were more dominant in Competence. We conclude that to be selected and function well as a supervisor places greater emphasis on being perceived as competent than on being warm. Then, as the individual moves upward, it becomes increasingly more important to be perceived as exhibiting Warmth in addition to being Competent.
Competence alone is career limiting. The combination of Competence and Warmth helps leaders to advance to higher levels and appears to lead to higher levels of employee engagement.
Self-assessment data tracks very closely with the rating from others in terms of leaders being more dominant in their abilities on Competence than Warmth. What has become clear in our research is that both traits are very important for a leader to possess.
(This article first appeared on Forbes.)
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