When we meet someone we all make snap judgements about them, whether we like to admit it or not. Particularly in business, researchers have found that we tend to judge people on two areas – competence (skills) and warmth (social/emotional perception).

Why is this so? If you think about it, it make sense. Warmth indicates how they might treat us, and whether that person is trustworthy and agreeable; basically, are they friend or foe? Competence indicates whether we think they will follow through on their actions. Judgements of competence are tricky, so people tend to prioritize warmth. This is consistent across most cultures (competence slightly less so), including Japan and the U.S.

The two factors influence each other in ways which we’re still grappling to understand. Interestingly, people perceived as warm tend to be seen as less competent, even though we know this isn’t necessarily true. Walt Disney started one of the greatest entertainment empires in the world (very competent!), but he was also known for being extremely warm and caring. Gordon Ramsay can make an amazing soufflé, but he’s definitely no saint. You don’t have to be nice to be “successful,” but you also don’t have to be a dick.

This is how it plays out in the business world. In companies where competence is emphasized, working mothers and working fathers were seen as less competent than those with no children. This is perhaps because parents are expected to be warm, and thus can’t also be competent (of course this isn’t necessarily true!).

Here it becomes tricky for women since there are lots of stereotypes around them being generally warmer than men. You would think that judging new hires by both warmth and competence would favor women (who are seen as warmer), but this is not so. In fact, the more competent a female was perceived, the colder they came off. In almost every case, for both men and women, warmth and competence seem to have a hydraulic relationship; when perception of one goes up, the other goes down.When it comes to hiring we might say, “She’s so nice and friendly, but would probably be a bad negotiator.” Or, “He gets things done fast and isn’t afraid to blunt, but he’ll probably rub some of our colleagues the wrong way.” Again, the hydraulic relationship is taking effect here. These assumptions are not necessarily faulty; of course, there is a line to draw, and if a job candidate is rude in the interview, this should be seen as a red flag. However, more often than not, we will judge these two traits simultaneously.

Another layer of complexity arises when we start to compare two candidates. One is seemingly warmer/friendlier than the other and therefore seemingly less competent. Instead of taking it as it is, we’ll start unknowingly looking for evidence to back that up (confirmation bias).

As an employee, manager or leader, what can you do? Most biases played some evolutionary role, so you can’t totally get rid of them, but you can be more vigilant. Two things. First, when hiring someone, developing a new client, or assessing a competitor, simply be aware that you are likely to misjudge the relationship between competence and warmth. Practically speaking, test the two traits separately in an interview, rather than inferring a “natural” judgement. Test their skills…and then test how they’d gel in a team. Don’t combine the two.

Second, one of the insights that came from that research is that if you’re perceived as a warm person (say, at work), one single cold action can totally mess that up and permanently change how people view you (it takes a long time to build trust, but only a second to break it). However, one failure of competency – say a failed deal or project – is a lot more forgivable. You’re not a machine, and people expect even the most successful leaders to mess up sometimes. In other words, be less of afraid of failure (take risks!) and focus on maintaining positive relationships and developing people skills.

If you’re interested in taking a deep dive into the research to apply it to your business/work/team, I recommend checking out this research paper that goes into the hydraulic effect in group dynamics and relationships on various levels of the work hierarchy. It’s a bit of a long read, but jam packed with interesting and actionable insights.

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