What effect do warmth and competence have on your career? Historically, being considered a warm person hasn’t been an attribute that senior leaders strove to develop. More emphasis was placed on being competent. Books and articles published in past decades that have described effective management have emphasized the importance of business acumen, technical knowledge, being results driven, taking initiative, and strategic thinking. However, competence alone is career limiting.
In a previous article, I shared Zenger Folkman’s research on how these two competencies effect women and senior leadership. In this article, I will share our research on how warmth and competence influence high potential ratings and employee engagement.
Our data for this analysis comes from 360-degree assessments with feedback from 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.
What is the interplay of warmth and competence when it comes to selecting those who are deemed “high-potentials” in an organization? We analyzed a dataset from an organization where we had potential ratings for 4,915 leaders in addition to 360-degree feedback evaluations of their perceived competence and warmth effectiveness.
For the assessment of their potential, these leaders had been rated as:
Ready now—currently ready for a promotion.
Not ready yet—good performance but not fully ready for promotion.
Needs improvement. The graph below confirms that being perceived as warm is correlated with being perceived as being ready for promotion. Competence alone does not correlate as highly with perceived promotability.
Those responsible for developing leaders who are ready for promotion may want to emphasize development of the leader’s effectiveness in warmth in addition to competence. This reinforces the old saying, “soft skills are the hard skills.” Learning to communicate more effectively and to collaborate, inspire, and develop others are obviously of high importance.
Impact of Warmth and Competence on Employee Engagement
Finally, we wanted to determine the impact of these two traits on a leader’s overall effectiveness. We needed an independent variable with which to measure the impact. Fortunately, we had collected employee engagement data from the direct reports on 63,916 leaders for whom we had measured both warmth and competence. From prior research we knew that there is a significant positive correlation between leadership effectiveness in general and employee commitment.
To assess the impact, we divided the total group into four quadrants by categorizing each leader according to their high/low score on each of the two dimensions. We then analyzed the employee engagement scores for the leaders in each quadrant. The graph below illustrates that the combination of higher scores in both warmth and competence results in higher levels of employee engagement. The differences between all groups are statistically significant.
Most leaders have been taught to value competence over warmth. Warmth seemed to be optional; a personal choice. The data paints a different picture. Competence alone is career limiting. The combination of warmth and competence helps leaders advance to higher levels and is correlated to higher levels of employee engagement. We strongly suspect that other business outcome measures, such as customer satisfaction, overall productivity, and profitability, are also highly correlated with the combination of warmth and competence.
While warmth has more of a positive impact on the engagement of employees, competence also has a significantly positive impact. What we have discovered in this analysis is while competence seems to be most critical early on in one’s career, over time and with promotions, balancing that competence with warmth is critical for leaders to be promoted and to create a highly engaged team.