How Leaders Build Trust: Warmth vs Competence

October 24, 2022

By Magda Voigt, ICF Coach

Trust: the ultimate root and source of our influence. Being influential is not only critical to leaders and managers, but to all of us, as we all interact with others. How can we be then perceived as trustworthy?

The Trust Lens         

When we interact with others we want to know if other people pose a threat to us. We (mostly unconsciously!) ask ourselves these questions:

  • Do you have good intentions toward me - are you a friend or a foe?
  • Do you have what it takes to act on those intentions?

So, where do people who interact with you find answers to these questions?

They are highly tuned into two particular aspects of your character: your warmth and your competence.

  1. Your warmth - friendliness, loyalty, empathy - is taken as evidence that you have good intentions toward the other person.
  2. Your competence - intelligence, skill, effectiveness - is taken as evidence that you can act on your intentions if you want to.

According to Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy perceptions of warmth and competence are responsible for roughly 90% of whether you are perceived positively or negatively by others. So, the importance of learning to project warmth and competence - to come across as a valuable ally - cannot be overstated.

Conveying Warmth

When people try to appear warm, they often do things like give compliments, perform favours, and show an interest in people’s thoughts and feelings. They try to display qualities like kindness,sincerity, empathy, and friendliness.

How can you project warmth?

  • Pay attention. Research shows that eye contact, nodding, and smiling are the three key physical indicators of warmth. Research also shows that people generally have no idea when they are not doing these things, so you might want to ask your friends and family if this is something to work on.
  • Show empathy. When you are getting to know someone, take the time to mentally put yourself in your perceiver's shoes, to really try to grasp his or her perspective. The more deliberately and vividly you do this, the better. Use superfluous apology - say “I’m sorry,” not as a way of accepting blame, but as a way of expressing regret over another person's hardship.
  • Trust them first. Human beings have a deeply rooted tendency toward reciprocity. We are naturally inclined to want to do favours, give gifts, and work to promote those who have done these things for us in the past. The same principle of reciprocity holds when it comes to trust.

Conveying Competence

Being able - through your skills and abilities - to act on your intentions is a key component of trust. Allies are only valuable when they can be trusted to be effective.

Much of the advice you hear about projecting competence is fairly obvious: highlight your accomplishments and experience, be self-assured, avoid defensiveness. And again, make eye contact.

Here are a few less obvious, but no less important, strategies you should be using to get your effectiveness across and be more trusted and influential.

  1. (Appear to) have willpower. If you want other people to believe that you are trustworthy, you should be aware that you may be seriously undermining that belief if you appear to lack self-control. Research shows that people just won’t trust you when you seem to have a willpower problem.
  2. Emphasise: Potential.  We are not as impressed by the “big thing” nearly as much as we are by the “next big thing.” We have an unconscious bias, leading us to prefer the potential for greatness over someone who has already achieved it. People are much more impressed, whether they realise it or not, by your potential than by your track record. It would be wise to start focusing your pitch on your future, rather than on your past - even if that past is very impressive indeed. It is what you could be that makes people sit up and take notice.
  3. Strike a (power) pose. Your posture, like it or not, tells people a lot about you. Reflect on what you are typically doing with your body when you are at your desk, in a meeting, or simply socialising. What message is your body language - your posture, your stance, your gesturing - sending to everyone in the room? And just as important, what message is it sending to your own brain?

Warmth And Competence: The Paradox

You may notice that the patterns of behaviours we associate with warmth and competence often contradict one another. If you appear too warm, people may question your competence - and if you appear too competent, people may assume you are cold.

Moral character, rather than overall warmth, is really the best predictor of whether someone will act on his or her good intentions, and therefore is the better indicator of whom to trust.

You can project your good intentions and navigate the dangers of the trust lens by being someone the perceiver can always count on to do the right thing. After all, this is ultimately what trust is actually about.

Trust and Leadership

Trust is obviously essential to good leadership. The problem, however, is that most people see leadership as being first and foremost about competence. Warmth is an afterthought.

So, are you a leader who projects warmth first - a leader whose top priority is making sure your team members feel they can trust you? If you suspect the answer might be no, start working on your warmth, because you will never be trusted without it.


Heidi Grant- Halvorson, No One Understands You and What to Do About It, Harvard Business Review Press (2015)

Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger, “Connect, Then Lead”, Harvard Business Review Magazine (July-August 2013)

  1. David Biello, Inside the debate about power posing: a Q & A with     Amy Cuddy, Ideas.Ted.Com (Feb 22, 2017) 
  2. Kim Elsesser, Power Posing Is Back: Amy Cuddy Successfully Refutes     Criticism, Forbes (Apr 3, 2018)

our recent blogs