by Achim Nowak

Why COMPETENCE Gets You Only So Far

May 2, 2022

It may sound like an academic question. It isn’t.

Which of your personal assets make your colleagues, clients, team clamor to work with you? Is it your warmth? Is it your knowledge and competence?

The answer – duh – is both. Consider the notion of showing up as a HAPPY Warrior. A perilous metaphor, I know, as a brutal war is waged in Ukraine. But I trust the intent is clear.

In the HAPPY WARRIOR, both warmth and competence are EQUALLY expressed.

This is the loud message from a whole lot of behavioral research about the warmth/competence mix. A classic article in a Harvard Business Review Edition devoted entirely to Personal Influence (Connect, then Lead, July/August 2013), penned by the formidable Amy Cuddy from Harvard Business School and fellow researchers Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger, tells the story. And HAPPY WARRIORS succeed regardless of where they find themselves. Boston. Paris. Beijing. Buenos Aires.

I love the word warmth. We like to circumvent it with lots of fancier leadership language. Empathy. Emotional Intelligence. Extroversion. Likeability. But warmth is something essential and primal that all of us experience kinesthetically. We “get it” deep down. And it is irresistible.

A house that does not have one warm, comfy chair in it is soulless.” 

May Sarton, poet

Think back. The moment we enroll in school to get our professional education, we are taught competence, competence, competence. Leading with warmth is, at best, an after-thought. If you have your MBA, you know. Ditto if you went to Medical School. The focus on “competence first” is all-pervasive and global.

Now here is the part I urge you to really pay attention to. What is the price we pay for not finding our warmth/competence mix?

According to Cuddy and her colleagues Susan Fiske of Princeton and Peter Glick of Lawrence University, people who we view as having lots of competence but lacking in warmth tend to elicit envy in us. And envy is a double-edged sort: Sure, it may include respect but it also contains a strong streak of resentment. On the other hand, people who are viewed as being warm but lacking in competence tend to elicit pity. Another double-edged emotion.

How do HAPPY WARRIORS embody both warmth and competence?

They own their competence strategically, selectively, with ease. And they trust that no matter what words they utter, in the end both warmth and competence are conveyed through the body. Or let me put it this way – if our body doesn’t convey it, it doesn’t matter that our words may scream warm and competent. Words often lie. The body doesn’t.

Consider the following kinesthetic warmth/competence conveyors.

  • A genuine smile.  We know that a smile can melt an iceberg. A polite smile won’t. A fake smile won’t, either. A genuine smile is triggered by a powerful private association I have with the moment I am in, or any external stimulus that elicits a joyful and compassionate association. So – connect with your inner and outer joy and compassion triggers. And yes, smile.
  • An energizing tone.  A tone that is mellifluous. Self-assured. Relaxed and effortless. Not tight, not hurried, not abrasive. Tone refers not only to vocal quality but also to the tone we set for a conversation. The I-wanna-be-here tone. The I-am- happy-to-engage with you tone – even though we may be having a difficult conversation. The I-am-choosing-to-be-fully-present-in-this-moment-with-you tone.
  • A gracious confidence. Not cocky, not arrogant, not in-your-face. No, a quiet confidence that need not flaunt itself. Because you have earned it. You have faith in it. Faith in yourself. And in the “right” unfolding of the moment. That’s the sort of confidence that sets us free AND invokes success.
  • A courageous expression of ideas.  We understand context. We know that we do not need to express every thought we have on every matter. But more importantly, we do not second-guess ourselves. We do not hide in silence. We choose to express an idea that we believe serves the higher good. And we invite others to disagree with this idea.

Wanna have some fun with the kinesthetics of warmth and competence? If you’re already an Amy Cuddy aficionado, you know about “power poses.” They may strike you as silly – but as a former acting coach I know how spot-on they are.

Cuddy suggests that we adopt “power poses” associated with strength and dominance from the animal kingdom. Think wide, sturdy, expansive. Think Wonder Woman or Superman. A mere 2 minutes of holding a power pose before a crucial meeting will increase your testosterone levels and your sense of confidence – which is a key manifestation of competence.

The beauty of a power pose: it tends to unleash your warmth conveyors, as well. Your HAPPY WARRIOR is unleashed!

What a liberating AND liberated way to show up. And WHOA, does it ever work!

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