Here’s a thought that will hopefully make us all more likable around the Thanksgiving turkey: “A growing body of research suggests that the way to influence—and to lead—is to begin with expressing emotional warmth.” That is the conclusion–probably surprising to the legal crowd–of an interesting research study looking at what gives leaders the power of influence.
Whether leaders like it or not, we make judgments about our leaders depending on the emotions they project. That study clarifies that we look primarily at two characteristics: first their warmth, which we believe indicates their trustworthiness, and then their strength or competence, and, importantly, in that order. Moreover, “[T]hese two dimensions account for more than 90% of the variance in our positive or negative impressions.” Suppressing emotional warmth and banking on an impression of competence to drive respect, which lawyers often naturally do, can actually lower our standing in the eyes of others, making them distrustful. As the authors of the study concluded: “Leaders who project strength before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting fear, and along with it a host of dysfunctional behaviors.”
This concept may have been demonstrated in the course of the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, whatever you think of their respective positions or the election outcome. While neither enjoyed high approval ratings, Trump’s strength was apparently in striking an emotional chord in his supporters, while Clinton’s (lawyerly) strength was in projecting her competence, using lengthy position papers and the mastery of wonky details. Newscasters fretted over whether Trump would ever deliver on the substance and Clinton would ever warm up. In spite of repeated attempts to convince her audiences of her bona fides, “untrustworthy” was one of the recurring characteristics she was saddled with. “Warm” was how both a cautious Paul Ryan and combative Lindsey Graham described Trump after first conferring with him as the presumptive Republican nominee, which assessment, not his position papers, apparently led to at least the beginning of a thawing process.
Leaders who express warmth also help groups cooperate and perform. In an experiment at Yale University, a group of volunteers played the role of managers who worked together to allocate bonuses. An actor planted among them always spoke first, projecting one of four emotional states: active cheerfulness, calm warmth, passive sadness, or irritable hostility. Not only was the actor able to infect the entire group with whatever emotion s/he projected (as a result of the well-established rule of emotional contagion), but more importantly the two positive emotions led both of those groups to improved cooperation and fairness, and also to overall better performance. Similarly, in another study, the leaders determined to be the most effective in the U.S. Navy (hardly a bastion of feel-good leadership) were those who were warmer, more outgoing, emotionally expressive and sociable.
How many lawyer leaders are known for projecting warmth or other positive emotions? This is not a common characteristic. Lawyers often look to elevate their most “competent” peers into management, rather than those most liked. Yet, as a study of 51,836 leaders found, likability has to be a factor since the chance that a manager who is strongly disliked will be considered by his/her organization as a good leader is only about one in 2,000.
Is either warmth or likability factors on your performance review checklist?
My experience with a department chair illustrates the cost of ignoring the value of warmth. The woman was a well-known authority and thought leader in a highly complex niche. Members in her department clearly respected that expertise, but to the person they did not enjoy working with her. She was insular, highly critical, unresponsive to interpersonal conflicts, time management issues and other concerns. When she was criticized by subordinates, the firm and she both reiterated to them her high standing in her legal area. She was unquestionably competent. But this leader, who was so well credentialed and attracted clients, was unable to personally connect with those in her group. Most left the department. Those who couldn’t eventually left the firm. The firm finally made her a department of one partner with frequently rotating subordinates, but the lack of stability, coupled with her poor interpersonal skills, eventually turned off many of her clients. She became furious that the firm wasn’t “backing” her by forcing associates and staff to stay in her department and by pushing back against client dissatisfaction. Eventually she decamped for another firm, which no doubt had to wrestle with these issues again.
Upping our emotional intelligence game will make us not only better lawyers but also better leaders. We need to be able to access positive emotions when needed and then be able to project them in a way that maximizes our influence, both with colleagues and clients. Perhaps that is why “transformative leaders,” i.e. those able to effect significant change, can be identified by their high emotional intelligence scores.
Happy Thanksgiving! Remember to keep it positive.