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“Before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you.” Amy JC Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger

How long do you have to make a first impression? A few minutes? Try 30 milliseconds. In this infinitesimal time, our brains judge the trustworthiness of others. Which means that we judge people before we even consciously process their faces – and what we’re searching for first is “warmth, communion, and trustworthiness.” What’s this have to do with effective leadership? Everything.

Loved or Feared?

In a Harvard Business Review article, “Connect, Then Lead: To Exert Influence, You Must Balance Competence with Warmth,” Amy Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger write:

When we judge others – especially our leaders – we look first at two characteristics: how lovable they are (their warmth, communion, or trustworthiness) and how fearsome they are (their strength, agency, or competence).

These two dimensions – warmth and strength – account for “more than 90% of the variance in our positive or negative impressions we form of the people around us.”

So, there’s a valid reason people often ask: Is it better to be loved or feared? We consciously and subconsciously seek out, and respond to, both characteristics in leaders. Machiavelli came down on the side of latter, famously saying, “It is better to be feared than loved.”

And as “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap said more colorfully: “You’re not in business to be liked… If you want a friend, get a dog.”

But, Machiavelli and Chainsaw Al notwithstanding, folks – and their brains – look for warmth first. Say the “Connect, Then Lead” authors: “Although most of us strive to demonstrate our strength, warmth contributes significantly more to others’ evaluation of us – and it’s judged before competence.” Leading through influence – not fear or force – is the way to achieve results.

Warmth is the Conduit of Influence – and Bottom Line Results

Researchers Mascha van ‘t Wout and Alan Sanfey conducted an experiment in which participants had to decide how an endowment should be allocated. It came as no surprise to van ‘t Wout and Sanfey that people invested more – without no guarantee of return – in those they perceived as trustworthy. The more trustworthy, the higher the investment.

In the business world, leading through influence has a number of benefits, including:

  • More sharing of information.
  • Greater cooperation and openness.
  • Healthy exchange of ideas – and more and better ideas, at that.
  • The opportunity to “change people’s attitudes and behaviors, not just their outward behavior.”

An analysis of the US 100 Best Workplaces revealed that “building workplace trust is the best investment your company can make, leading to better recruitment, lower employee turnover, greater innovation, higher productivity, more loyal customers, and higher profits.”

On the other hand, “putting competence first undermines leadership.” People may go along with the party line, but they’re far less likely to embrace the leader’s vision – or exert themselves in realizing it.

Becoming a “Happy Warrior”

None of this is to denigrate the importance of strength. According to the HBR authors, both strength and warmth are critical because they answer two questions: “’What are this person’s intentions towards me?’ and ‘Is he or she capable of acting on those intentions.’”

The “sweet spot” of leadership, then, comes in combining these two attributes. How?

Project warmth by:

  • Adjusting your tone. A lower pitch and volume can convey warmth; you sound as though you’re speaking with a friend. This helps immediately establish trust, and you come across as authentic. As a relatable human being.
  • Smiling genuinely. Find a reason to be happy – and then show it. Real smiles are contagious and emanate genuine warmth.
  • Validating people’s feelings. Acknowledge people’s thoughts and feelings. When you demonstrate that you’re empathetic and that you understand their point of view, you portray warmth – and increase the likelihood that they will return the favor and listen to you.

Project strength by:

  • Feeling in command. Banish self-doubt and let confidence take over. Try “power poses” before high-pressure situations if you’re feeling uncertain. In her remarkable TED talk, Amy Cuddy discusses how changing our body language can help change our perceptions and even our brain chemistry. (Spending two minutes standing like Superman? Could help you wow during your next client meeting, pitch, or presentation!)
  • Standing up straight. Reach your full height, reach your full potential? That’s exactly what Cuddy, Kohut, and Neffinger think: “It sounds trivial, but maximizing the physical space your body takes up makes a substantial difference in how your audience reacts to you, regardless of your height.”
  • Being aware of your body. Move deliberately and with intent. “And when you are finished moving, be still.” This body language conveys calm, poise, and credibility.

Love and hate are extreme ends of the spectrum; at one end, people are fearful of leaders they don’t know or they don’t trust. At the other, they love (respect, trust, have confidence in) their leaders because they have taken the time and effort to build those relationships. The question is: where do you fall on the spectrum – and what can you do to edge closer to “love” – and to better results?