Better to Be Competent or Warm?

From the Eye on the Workforce Blog
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Workforce management is a key part of project success, but project managers often find it difficult to get trustworthy information on what really works. From interpersonal interactions to big workforce issues we'll look the latest research and proven techniques to find the most effective solutions for your projects.

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If you were to go back through postings on this blog over the many years that it has been in existence, you would find that many of the tips and tactics covered fall under the category of “ways to improve the work environment so that workers can do their best”.  To be able to manage an environment is a high-leverage technique for a project manager. You would do well to identify and build as many skills in this area as you can.

Here’s one now!

A recent study helps you understand in a more sophisticated way how to interact so that you create a more productive environment for your project team.

Before getting into the details of the study and pulling out useful tactics for a project manager, it’s useful to ask yourself: Is it better for me to appear as competent or to appear as warm? You might think it is best to be both. You might think it is more important for you to appear competent because your team does not have to like you, they just have to respect your authority and ability.

There are certainly different ways to look at this and, of course, different project managers have different personalities. But if your objective is to create a productive workplace, it is important to strike the right balance in a given situation, to understand what behaviors create the environment where workers will thrive. This study helps you do that - with a little help from my tactics provided after the description of the study.

The study was supported by Carnegie Mellon University and led by Shereen J. Chaudhry, who was trying to determine how and why people use apologizing, thanking, bragging and blaming. The study used clever scenarios with winners and losers and researchers monitored what happened on live chats after the winner was revealed. Sometimes the environment and outcome was fixed to really test researcher's predictions. (Hard to tell whether that would have been fun or just a little creepy.) Researchers interviewed participants afterwards to gather more information.

The outcome of the study confirmed predictions and made additional discoveries, including:

  • People generally prefer thanking far more than bragging.
    (Notice that there is a preference to be polite or appear "warm" in a social setting.)
  • People even preferred to thank or apologize albeit reluctantly when it was important in the environment to appear competent.
    (Notice how there is a fear that thanking and apologizing are seen to make someone look less competent, but it is preferred to appear warm.)
  • "Winners" tend to want to experience gratitude, so may "prompt" others when it is not forthcoming.
  • When given an opportunity to work again with a participant, preference went to those who chatted previously and who used techniques to appear warm over other participants who did not either participate in a live chat or those who appeared less warm in previous interactions.
  • Thanking and apologizing occur less often after bragging and blaming occur.

You can employ certain tactics based on this information, such as

  • Show gratitude to your project team for their work. Provide an authentic apology when appropriate.
  • Prompt your team to show gratitude until it becomes a habit. (Have you seen meetings where gratitude is a standard agenda item? Now you know why.)
  • Do Less bragging and less blaming and counter it in team interactions so that it does not squelch preferred behaviors. Any advantage you desire to achieve to appear more competent by bragging and blaming works against you in reality.

Managing the amount of thanking, apologizing, bragging and blaming turns out to be a powerful tool in your tool set.

Before hearing the results of the study, would you have anticipated that appearing warm was more important than appearing competent in such social interactions? Would you have managed these kinds of interactions as recommended above?

Posted on: March 20, 2019 11:50 PM | Permalink

Comments (10)

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Interesting Post. I like your points. Thanks fors haring it.

Thank you. Yes, in social interactions, I was expecting that being warm is more important.

Thank you.

Interesting points - I wonder how different cultures act in these ways?

Sean, That question is a wise one. I have written previously on managing resources in different cultures and can say that we need to keep in mind that some of the research we use may have limitations based on the culture in which it was conducted. Even if it is generally applicable to some extent. I don't think we project managers get enough respect for the difficulty we face trying to successfully interact with the many types of people we deal with every day.

Interesting points. Thanks.

Interesting perspective on the topic
Thank you for sharing

Thanks for sharing. Very interesting.

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