An article by psychologist Amy J.C.Cuddy in the February 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review reports that we make fast assessments of people on two bases:  their intentions and their competence.  And more importantly, we assume one is related to the other.  This response is evolutionarily linked, she argues, to the advantage of quickly determining whether an unknown person 1) is friendly or hostile and 2) can follow through on their threats or promises. 

Unfortunately our assessments are often marred by biases that produce faulty judgments.  For example, we have a bias towards the elderly as being incompetent but non-threatening.

In the business world jungle, these instant assessments can carry long-term consequences, particularly if they are inaccurate because of poor perception skills (a common problem area for lawyers) or individual biases.  Inaccurate assessments can lead managers to trust untrustworthy associates or undervalue potentially important people.  They can also undermine efforts to build effective teams and retain valuable employees. 

Which One Are You?

For our work with lawyers, the more important finding of the research is that people see "warmth" and "competence" as inversely related:  a surfeit of one ("She’s SO nice") is believed to imply a deficit in the other ("She probably can’t stand up to a board").  For example, employees who are  consistently perceived as "warmer" are also viewed as less competent, with the practical result that employees who are mothers are often demonstrably underpaid and under-promoted.

While lawyers as a group are not usually at risk for being rated high on the warmth scale, leaders who know the importance of interpersonal relationships, and particularly women, often struggle with portraying to clients and colleagues the "right mix" of warmth and competence, fearing, just as the research tends to show, that too much of the former undercuts the perception of the latter. 

There is some trepidation in telling lawyers not to be too warm–certainly there are those who would argue there is little risk there.  Yet, particularly at a time when, rightfully, the legal world is exhorted to value and praise and build relationships, knowing how to do that practically without impairing the legal product produced, either in actuality or in the perception, is important.

Our advice has long been to bifurcate these two parts of leadership:  warmth is important and should be directed toward individuals, while critical analysis should be directed toward issues, not people.  

Whether with clients or colleagues, inquire about the kids, rib them about their  diet and praise them for their recent efforts, but when you review the business product, do not stint on hard analysis.  In both conflict resolution and decision-making research, similar findings make it clear that too pervasive an effort to build cohesion can overwhelm the validity and productivity of the underlying endeavor. The hard but important work of critical give-and-take can be mortally blunted by attempts to be "nice."

In order to improve our judgments and others’ perceptions of us, Cuddy suggests that we also spend time working to reeducate ourselves and our employees away from the savannah influence:  don’t be too quick to make judgments in these two areas, and do not assume that kindness and competence are mutually exclusive.