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How we are judged and how we judge others


Warmth and competence:
How we are judged and how we judge others

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Rosalyn is a high performing consultant in professional services. She is known for her bubbly personality and easy manner. But she is also highly competent and ambitious. She has just been asked to help the Head of Tax at a major client with a complex issue. After their first meeting the client called Rosalyn’s boss and asked if she was up to the job, “She’s much too nice…”was one of his reasons for the call. On closer acquaintance he revised his opinion but not without Rosalyn having to work very hard to demonstrate her competence and down play her warm personality.


What happened to Rosalyn can happen to any of us. Our brain is geared to make judgements when we first meet people and these judgements inform how we interact with them. This tendency to think quickly and based on stereotypical data has coined the metaphor of the cognitive miser. That is, we don’t tax our brain unless there is significant upside. And revising initial judgements doesn’t happen when the cognitive miser is in action. What this means is we make fast judgements and then rarely make the mental effort to change them. In the story above the initial judgement of Rosalyn was only modified because her boss persuaded the Head of Tax to get to know her better and she downplayed her warmth and went all out to show the other side of her character – her competence.

First impressions

First impressions rely on speed over accuracy and it’s a trade off the brain uses to preserve energy.

There are too many competing demands on our cognitive processes to give our full attention to others, and for that matter to our own behaviours. Hence, we rely on behavioural habits that serve us most of the time. We use the same approach with people without thinking about what will create the right impression.

For example, Rosalyn might have thought about her first meeting with the Head of Tax and worked out he was in dire straits, was likely to be stressed about it and would therefore be overly concerned about her ability to solve his issue and hence she should demonstrate her competence first and her warm next.  He probably wasn’t too concerned if she was likable as his assumption was he would only be working with her once.

Now the Head of Tax will not have been thinking all of this through rationally or even consciously. He would have been using what Danial Kahneman calls System 1 thinking – the tendency to make judgements fast and based on very limited data and stereotypes. Likewise, Rosalyn was also using System 1 by approaching the meeting as her ‘usual’ self, the habitual way she gets to know new people, emphasizing her warm personality.  Neither engaged System 2 to check the validity of our initial judgements. We show up ‘as we are’ rather than step back before meeting new people and wonder what version of us – the warm friendly version or the cool competent version – will work best.

System 1 is of course useful in many situations and allows us to process huge amounts of information quickly and to take action to stay safe. But it is also the bases of bias and mistaken judgements.

The bases of judgements

Studies by Susan Fiske and Amy Cuddy have shown that we judge people primarily by two criteria: their warmth, and their competence. These are often described as trust and power. And in a business context these descriptions may be more useful.

The first and most important question we ask ourselves, unconsciously, when we meet someone is: “Do I like this person?” which is an assessment of their warmth and trustworthiness, a reading of whether we feel they are a friend or foe, in which case we need to be weary of their intentions.
That judgement is followed by “Do I respect this person?” which is a judgement of their effectiveness and competence, and how capable they are of carrying out their intentions.

We are constantly assessing people on the scale of warmth vs competence, based on their non-verbal signals and the energy they project. At the same time, we are also unintentionally sending a continuous stream of non-verbal signals of our own that other people use to judge how warm or competent we are. These two dimensions account for about 80% of our overall evaluations of people and shape our behaviour toward them and how we feel about them. This judgement of warmth and competence determines why we hire someone, why we engage easily with one client but not another, even why we may win or lose a piece of business.

How we make judgements

There’s an interesting asymmetry in the assumptions people make about warmth and competence. Many factors can indicate competence: scoring well on an exam, answering a tricky question from a client, getting a good degree, for example. Cuddy’s studies have shown that if you demonstrate competence in one area, it’s commonly assumed that you are competent in other, often unrelated areas. This is one reason why technical managers are so commonly appointed to leadership roles: they have demonstrated their mastery of complex issues that are essential to the success of the organisation. They’re good: it’s assumed they’ll be good at people-management as well.

There’s a sort of “stickiness” to competence: once the label is applied it’s not quickly taken away. (Which may be why so many poor people managers are being left to struggle.) A single incompetent behaviour – failing one exam, one set of poor engagement scores from the team – is not generalised: it will simply be dismissed as a one-off or an unlearned skill. We seem to assume that overall competence can’t be faked.

By contrast, warmth (sincerity, trustworthiness…) is judged differently. And maybe from an evolutionary point of view this was because it was so important to survival: misjudging warmth and trustworthiness could result in death.

A single example of openness, generosity or compassion (staying late to help a colleague with a big presentation, taking a junior under your wing) will not lead to a generalised assessment that this is a warm, generous, open person. The unconscious assumption is they might just be doing this because it looks like the right thing to do.

But a single instance of being cold or unkind (speaking harshly to a member of the secretarial staff, for instance) means they are categorised as an insensitive, heartless person. The assumption seems to be that it’s possible to fake warmth or kindness, and a moment of meanness reveals true character.

Judged as one or the other

Studies show that people tend to see warmth and competence as inversely related: if someone is seen to be capable, efficient and effective, they’re assumed to be less warm and less people-oriented. The more competent someone, is seen to be, the more it will be assumed they are hard-boiled. The entrenched assumption is if you are really competent you wouldn’t need to be so warm and nice: highly competent people don’t have to be liked. In fact, warmth may even be judged as weakness.

Getting the balance right

You may have noticed that the patterns of behaviour we associate with warmth are opposite to those we associate with competence.

This is why it’s so hard to convey both (along with our reliance on stereotypes and being cognitive misers). Qualities of warmth that are not also indicators of low competence are related to moral behaviour. Research by Paul Rozen shows these behaviours are also indicators of trust: fairness, courage, taking responsivity, honesty and loyalty – they convey good intensions even better than the behaviours traditionally associated with warmth – smiling, being affable, kind and compassionate.

Another way to convey both is to watch your body language, restricted body language can convey warmth but also weakness or a lack of confidence. Our body language tends to speak louder than our words. You can convey warmth with words and competence (power) with an upright posture, limited fidgeting and confident tone.

Getting a balance between warmth and competence is tricky, especially for women. This video is a great example of doing just that although it may not be easy for most of us to rely on our war history!

Don’t surrender to the stereotype

Walking the tightrope, says Amy Cuddy, may not mean surrendering to the stereotype. People, especially leaders, tend to over-emphasise the importance of projecting high competence. Many want to be the smartest person in the room. Clearly there are advantages to being seen as highly competent – the research shows you will in turn feel more powerful and more willing to take risks.

But it’s rarely a good idea to be like that all the time. It alienates people, makes them defensive about their own status and thus less receptive to influence and new ideas. And if you’re preoccupied with appearing competent and powerful there isn’t the mental capacity to also be creative, and to read other people and what they need.

Pick and choose your moments of shining brilliance is Cuddy’s recommendation. Your goal should be to connect with people first and only impress them with your abilities occasionally. They are much more likely to listen to and believe your ideas if they already like and trust you.

But maybe the most important consideration is to think about what is the most appropriate way to show up for that all important first meeting. Dial up the warms or the competence?

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