Show Warmth Before Strength To Effectively Lead

“I can’t wait to get to my hotel and tell you about the latest office drama,” my friend said. “I would have called you sooner, but my boss was with me in the cab.”

“Before you tell me the drama, I have a question for you,” I said. “Do you ever discuss all the chaos in your workplace with your boss?”

“Do you want to talk to my boss?” my friend shouted. “Are you insane? I say exactly what my supervisor wants to hear. People who tell my employer things he doesn’t want to hear are fired at the end of the quarter.” 

Five hundred years ago, Machiavelli mulled an eternal problem and hedged his choices. “It may be answered that one should wish to be both,” he said, “but because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

Now, behavioral science is chiming in, with data indicating that Machiavelli was partially correct: When we assess our leaders, we look at two characteristics: how lovable they are (their warmth, communion, or trustworthiness) and how scary they are (their strength, agency, or competence). Although academics debate on the correct labels for the qualities, they agree that these are the two primary elements of how we judge others. 

These characteristics are meaningful because they answer two crucial questions: “What are this person’s intentions toward me?” and “Can they act on those intentions?” These conclusions underpin our reactions to others. According to research, leaders perceived as competent but lacking warmth provoke jealousy in others. That’s a feeling containing both respect and bitterness that cuts both ways.

When we respect someone, we wish to attach ourselves to them. We admire their skill. But bitterness may expose that skilled person to resentment. This is what happens when a celebrity is faced with a dilemma. Their extravagant lifestyle can make them an unsympathetic public figure. People who are perceived as warm but unskilled inspire pity. That is also a combination of emotions. Compassion motivates us to help those we pity, but our lack of respect causes us to disregard them in the end. This can happen to an employee with out-of-date skills in a rapidly evolving industry. 

We notice many other qualities in people, but none are as powerful as warmth and strength. These two characteristics account for more than 90% of the range in our good or bad views of individuals. 

So, which is preferable: being loving or strong? Many leaders highlight their power, skill, and credentials at work. But that is the opposite way to gain followers. Leaders who show strength before creating trust risk provoking panic and a slew of destructive behaviors. Employees might get trapped and even disengaged because of fear, which can lower mental capacity, creativity, and problem-solving. It’s a “hot” feeling with long-term consequences. It sticks with us in ways that other emotions do not. This is supported by research: In a survey of almost 52,000 executives, those rated as most likable and kind were also rated as most effective. Out of nearly 52,000, only 27 executives were rated in the top quartile for effectiveness and bottom quartile for likability. So the chances of being perceived as a good leader while being deeply disliked is one in 2,000. Those are the same odds as going to the ER because of a mattress-related injury. 

According to a growing body of studies, the best approach to influence—and lead—is to start with warmth. That is because warmth is a channel of influence. Warmth promotes trust, communication, and idea absorption. Even a few tiny nonverbal cues—a nod, a grin, an open gesture—can communicate to others that you’re happy to be with them and listen to their problems. Prioritizing warmth allows you to connect with individuals around you right away, proving that you hear, understand, and can be trusted.

When Intensity Comes Before Warmth

Most of us aim to display our abilities. We want others to view us as powerful. So we concentrate on fending off threats to our authority and delivering ample evidence of talent. We prove our worth by presenting unique ideas in meetings, working the longest hours, and being the first to tackle an assignment. We do not feel the need to demonstrate our trustworthiness because we know our own intentions. But this ignores that proof of trustworthiness is the first thing we check for in others.

Studies confirm this behavior. When asked to pick between training programs concentrating on competence-related skills (such as time management) and warmth-related abilities (such as offering social support), most participants chose competence-based training for themselves but soft-skills training for others. When asked to describe an event that shaped their self-image, most participants shared stories about themselves that reinforced their competence (“I passed my pilot’s license test on the first try”), but when they described a similar event for others, they concentrated on that person’s warmth (“My friend tutored his neighbor’s child in math and refused to accept any money”).

Promoting dominance before we show warmth undermines leadership. People comply outwardly with a dominant leader’s directives. But they are less likely to conform privately. They’re much less likely to adopt the organization’s mission, culture, and values. Workplaces prioritizing dominance have a culture of “every employee for themselves.” Workers feel like they must safeguard their self-interest. Our belief that coworkers won’t act in the best interest of the group can lead us to justify our selfish behavior. People become unwilling to support others because they don’t believe their efforts will be reciprocated. They believe their work will be unfairly criticized. So the company’s resources are depleted because everyone is looking out for their self-interests instead of the business as a whole. 

When Warmth Comes First

Warmth adds substantially more to how people perceive us. It is rated before expertise. According to studies people usually sense warmth before competence. This inclination for warmth extends to other aspects of life as well. It promotes information exchange, transparency, adaptability, and collaboration. When teammates can be relied on to do the right thing and keep their promises, planning, coordination, and execution become much more uncomplicated. Trust also enhances the sharing and adoption of ideas, allowing individuals to hear the message of others and increasing the amount and quality of ideas generated inside an organization. Most importantly, it allows individuals to modify their attitudes and ideas, not simply their outward conduct. That is the sweet spot for influence and the power to persuade people to accept your message.

There are several techniques for portraying warmth and competence, and they may be adjusted as needed. Let’s have a look at some of these ideas. 

How to Show Warmth

Attempts to look friendly and trustworthy by regulating your nonverbal cues can backfire. You could appear wooden and inauthentic. Here are some methods to avoid falling into that trap.

It’s Your Tone

Speak at a quieter pitch and volume, as if you were soothing a friend. Strive for a voice that shows you’re on the same page as people—that you’re telling it as it is, with no pretense or dramatic embellishment. By doing so, you’re indicating that you trust the people you’re speaking to handle things properly. To illustrate that you’re candid and open, tell a personal anecdote that seems private but isn’t improper in a confiding tone of voice. If you want to connect with new workers that you’re meeting for the first time. You may start with something personal, such as recalling how you felt at a comparable time in your career. That is frequently enough to establish a friendly tone.

Validate Emotions

People form opinions about you before they form opinions about your message. When you share your employee’s perspective, you show that you have common sense. If you want your coworkers to agree with you, you must first agree with them.

Assume your organization is undergoing a significant restructuring, and your team is concerned about what the shift may imply for job security. Label the fears and worries when you speak to them, “I know everyone is experiencing a lot of uncertainty right now, and it’s unnerving.”  People will appreciate you for confronting the elephant in the room, and they will be more receptive to what you have to say as a result.


When we genuinely smile, the warmth reinforces itself. It is infectious. We tend to reflect one another’s nonverbal gestures and emotions, so when we see someone smiling and radiating real warmth, we can’t help but smile back. But a fake grin fools no one. To transmit warmth, you must truly experience it. A genuine grin, for example, requires not just the muscles surrounding the lips, but also the muscles around the eyes (the crow’s feet). So think about something that makes you smile about your situation. 

To show more warmth you can:

  • Stop by a coworker’s desk a few times a week to see how they’re doing.
  • Contact someone who is going through a hard time and invite them to coffee.
  • In a team meeting, ask how an upcoming change is impacting people on your team and tell them what you’ve heard.

How to Show Strength

The position you have, your reputation, and your actual performance may all be used to demonstrate your strength or competence. But your presence is essential. How you conduct yourself is significant proof of your seriousness and determination. That is a component of total strength. The key is to project power without appearing scary.

Straighten Your Back

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of proper posture in expressing authority and a desire to be taken seriously.   Good posture does not require the excessive chest-out position, nor does it mean lifting your chin high. It means standing tall and engaging your muscles to straighten your spine. Imagine your head is on a puppet string. Pull it upward into the air. Increasing the physical area that your body occupies makes a significant impact on how your audience perceives your competence. 

Move Precisely and Remain Calm 

When you move, move purposefully and exactly to a specific location rather than flinging your limbs around aimlessly. And after you’ve finished moving, stop. Twitching and fidgeting illustrate that you are not in control. Calm is demonstrated by stillness. Combine it with proper posture, and you’ll establish poise, which communicates balance and stability, all of which are crucial parts of authentic leadership presence. 

To show more strength, you can:

  • Lead the team in setting deadlines on a project and work hard to meet them.
  • Attend a training on a job-related topic and bring that new knowledge to an upcoming discussion with your team.
  • Solve a problem that has been plaguing your team for a considerable amount of time.

Balancing Strength and Warmth: The Joyful Warrior

The greatest method to obtain influence is to mix warmth and strength. These qualities reinforce each other: In difficult situations, having a sense of personal power allows us to be more open, less threatened, and less frightening. When we are confident and at ease, we exude sincerity and warmth. 

During a crisis, these are the people who can maintain the influence channel. Most people despise ambiguity, but they can endure it much better if they can turn to a leader who they think has their back and is calm, clearheaded, and brave. We trust and listen to leaders like that. Before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you.

Be Decisive and Open-Minded 

A joyful warrior uses assertive language while expressing openness to other ideas. It looks like saying, “We must improve sales by 33% by committing more resources to lead generation, but I would like to hear your ideas on how we can achieve those results.” To be a happy warrior, be precise about where you want to go while keeping the door open to feedback. 

Listen with Humility

A joyful warrior listens with humility. Ask clarifying questions. Check-in with the speaker to confirm that you’ve understood them by repeating what they’ve said back to them. Don’t use dismissive facial expressions or tone of voice. Don’t make the speaker feel like their opinion is unimportant. 

Listening with humility illustrates that you are open to hearing what they have to say and that your opinion is not the only important one. 

Say No 

A joyful warrior must be comfortable saying “No.” We dread saying “No” because we do not want to be unpopular or have our team resent us. But it is a necessary element of leadership. 

Focus on the Problem, Not the People 

One of the toughest applications of being a happy warrior is when you need to set boundaries. In those situations, focus on the conduct rather than the person. Challenging the conduct rather than the person removes the defensiveness created by personal attacks. 

So instead of saying, “Why did you do that? You ruined it!” the focus is on the conduct and its effects. This looks like saying, “When you did X and it resulted in Y, this is the impact it had on others. Please do not do it again.” Be precise while being kind. People don’t like being told they’ve done something wrong. But it is required. You can do it without destroying the relationship. 


These tactics will generate a positive feedback loop. Being calm and confident allows you to be warm, open, and compassionate. Your strength is accepted as a reassurance after you have established your warmth. Your leadership converts from a danger to a gift.

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