If someone asked you what you thought were the most important qualities in a leader, what you say? If you’re like me, expertise, confidence, experience, and being a good listener would have been your instinctive responses. But guess what: research shows we missed the big two.
A recent study indicated that all strong personal and professional relationships are based two factors: “competence,” and “warmth”. “Warmth” matters because it shows a lack of intentional threat. And “competence” goes along with warmth because it implies that you won’t accidentally harm someone either. The combination lets people trust your potential as a leader. It reminds me of physicians’ Hippocratic Oath, to first and foremost “do no harm.”
But it’s not just whether you are warm and competent: the real question is whether other people believe that you are. At that point it’s critical to consider how these broad definitions of warmth and competence are identified. This is where the ability to speak like a leader becomes of critical importance.
For example, what do warmth and competence sound like? Warmth tends to reflect feelings and behaviors, and competence generally reflects skills, but based on the above definitions of warmth and competence, your communication skills will drastically influence your trustworthiness on both fronts.
Let’s take a look at a few factors that can influence how your communication style allows your warmth and competence to be visible to all.
Of course your message needs to be factually accurate and true, but it goes beyond that. When you explain something, do you use tons of jargon and give way more detail than the listener wants, needs or can understand? Do you seem uncomfortable or unconfident when answering questions? Do your explanations get “lost in the weeds”? These habits can undermine the perception of warmth because it seems like you don’t really understand or trust me, and if you don’t trust me, why would I trust you?
If nothing else, avoid fillers like um, like, you know, or sort of. They make it sound like you don’t even trust what you’re saying, which erodes the perception of competence.
Using relatable stories, common vocabulary and a clear and logical flow, on the other hand, make it much easier for others to understand and appreciate what you’re saying. This transparency allows them to see you as a more trustworthy leader.
Regardless of what you want to say, the way the words sound as they roll – or stumble – off the tongue, will reinforce or undermine that foundation of trust. Do you speak at a volume and speed that is comfortable for the listeners? Does your inflection (intonation highs and lows) draw the listeners’ attention to important words, reflecting your personal interest in the topic and adding vocal interest for the listener? These seemingly small details support your image of warmth and competence because it shows you are focusing on meeting the needs of the audience. Mumbling, rushing, and monotonous, run-on sentences will all have the opposite effect.
Lastly, your physical communication (facial expressions, movement and body language) is, ironically, the most powerful factor in your appearance of credibility, because it is the biggest distractor if it does not reinforce the inherent content of your message.
Even if you are an expert in your content, and even if your voice is strong or clear, facial expressions such as occasional eye-rolling, frowning, staring or lack of eye contact, or biting your lip can signal your deeper, underlying negative feelings about what you are saying, from arrogance and contempt to insecurity. Remember to smile when appropriate, make eye contact with everyone without staring them down, and keep a neutral listening face in order to reassure the audience of the sincerity of your intentions.
Regardless of the seniority of your position, bearing these points in mind will help you reinforce the impression of being both warm and competent, and come across as a natural leader.
Do you have other questions or feedback about effective leadership communication? If so, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss it with me personally!