A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Is it Better to be Loved or Feared, reaffirmed what I consider the best way to lead. The article discusses the age old question, probably first contemplated by Machiavelli: “Are leaders better if they are more ‘lovable’ or ‘fearsome’?” These are generally mutually exclusive approaches to leadership, so trying to be both will be less effective than taking one approach and doing it well. However, the research cited in the article suggests the best way to lead is with warmth and trust.
Why put trust first
Although it is important to demonstrate competence (and be competent), you need to build a foundation of trust so that your team or company not only outwardly does what you say but also actually adopts—in a sincere and lasting way—your values, culture and organizational mission. The article points out that workplaces or teams lacking trust often have a culture of every employee for themselves; where they are more vigilant about protecting their interests than working towards the good of the company.
If warmth and trust are put above fear and proving your own competence, your team is more likely to make a positive judgment towards you and follow your instructions. Behavioral economists have shown that judgments of trustworthiness generally lead to much higher economic gains. Trust increases information sharing, openness, fluidity and cooperation. If co-workers can be trusted to do the right thing and live up to their commitments, then planning, coordination and execution are much easier. Trust also facilitates the exchange and acceptance of ideas and boosts the quantity and quality of ideas created and exchanged. The real difference maker, however, is that trust provides the opportunity to change not only people’s attitudes and beliefs, but also their outward behavior. If you are building a great company, you need a team that shares your attitudes and beliefs.
The perfect combination
The best leader will combine strength and trust, though putting trust first. Feeling a sense of personal strength helps us to be more open and less threatened (and less threatening) in a stressful situation. If you are confident and calm, you project both authority and warmth.
Ways to show warmth
Given the importance in establishing a warm, trusting relationship with your team, there are several techniques you can apply without coming off as phony:
MEAN IT. Authenticity is crucial. Think about what is important for your team members and put yourself in their position. If you do not care about your team, you will not be able to achieve a trusting, long-term relationship. If you truly cannot care about your team members, do not try and focus on a strength-centric relationship. You’re not fooling anyone.
Find the right level. When people want to project warmth, they sometimes amp up the enthusiasm in their voice, increasing their volume and dynamic range to convey delight. The better way to create vocal warmth is to speak with lower pitch and volume, just as if you were comforting a friend.
Validate feelings. People decide what they think of you before they decide what they think of your message. If you show your employees that you hold roughly the same worldview they do, you demonstrate not only empathy but (at least in their eyes) common sense. I am not advocating being disingenuous; for example, I would avoid political topics where you might disagree rather than just taking their position. Focus on the common ground. If you want colleagues to listen and agree with you, first agree with them.
Smile and mean it (see the recurring theme: be authentic). If you smile sincerely, the warmth becomes self-reinforcing. We tend to mirror one another’s non-verbal expressions and emotions, so when we see someone beaming and emanating genuine warmth, we can’t resist smiling ourselves.
Ways to show strength
As the ideal leader combines strength with warmth, it is also important to look at ways to project strength that do not undercut building trust. For starters, you need to feel in command. While it is hard to fake warmth, it is more difficult to convince yourself to be confident. Feeling like you do not belong in your position is very common. This self-doubt can completely undermine your ability to project confidence, enthusiasm and passion, the qualities you need to show to be effective. Feeling in command and confident is about connecting with yourself.
Secondly, get ahold of yourself (a.k.a. be aware of your body). When you move, move deliberately and precisely to a specific spot rather than casting your limbs about loose-jointedly. Also, be still when you are finished moving; do not fidget, twitch or send any other signals that you are not in control.
Finally, standing tall is an especially good way to project strength because it does not interfere with warmth as other signals of strength sometimes do. Good posture is also important in projecting authority: Not the exaggerated chest-out pose known in action movies or raising your chin up, but standing at your full height and not slouching.
The verdict? Care!
At the end of the day, you will be most effective, and get the most out of your team, if you truly care about your people. This will create a sense of trust between you and ensure everyone works towards the same goals.