Why Warmth Matters in Leadership



Managers and leaders who deliver authority without warmth often tend to devolve into authoritarianism, expecting high performance of employees or teams for no other reason than it has been demanded of them. Effective leaders are authoritative, not authoritarian. With the latter, teams perform their best out of fear of punishment; in the former, people perform their best out of a desire to contribute to the success of something they care about, whether it’s an individual project or task or an entire company mission. 

Showing Vulnerability

You get that kind of performance and dedication by delivering authority with warm output that conveys authenticity, humility, empathy, and vulnerability. Presenting yourself with vulnerability is not about showing weakness or being too soft. It’s also not about TMI or exposing all the sensitive details of your personal life. In fact, that’s where people get it wrong—when they feel pressured to share more than feels comfortable and wind up feeling like they’re playing a role to get ahead at the workplace, they’re not being authentic and true to themselves and that undermines authority. 

Similarly, the second people suspect that you’re oversharing to gain favor or pity, or to create an artificial bond, you’ve lost them. It also matters what kind of vulnerability you reveal. Vulnerability in the workplace is simply about revealing that you’re human, which makes you relatable to everyone in the room. Showing the right amount of vulnerability actually boosts your authority, so long as it’s done selectively, judiciously, and authentically. 

Far from undermining your authority, allowing people to see your humanity deepens your connections, inspiring greater loyalty. Again, being warm doesn’t necessarily have to be about revealing yourself or urging others to reveal. It’s simply about communicating with honesty and authenticity. It’s about being real. As long as you’ve got your technical proficiency and knowledge covered, it cannot hurt you.

Connecting With Others

People won’t listen to you, trust you, or believe you if they don’t inherently feel a connection to you. Think about it: if someone lacks warmth, you don’t warm up to them. When someone gives you the sense that they’re closed off, either through their words, body language, or facial expression, you’re less inclined to open up to them. Or do business with or have a relationship with them.

Connectability isn’t only about warmly and authoritatively projecting your message outward into the world. People who are known for their warmth are also known for their willingness to listen, for their attentiveness, and for their ability to acknowledge people, whether it’s a crowd or single individual. Perhaps counterintuitively, we also project a warm and authoritative message when we invite and accept input.

Better for Business

In every instance, there are long-term financial and professional benefits to infusing our interactions with warmth. To put it bluntly, being a better human is better for business. 

Costco’s cofounder Jim Sinegal knew this. CEO until his retirement in 2012, Sinegal built Costco into one of the world’s largest global retailers. He did it with a stringent attention to detail and quality, and by being ruthless about price, but he also insisted on creating a warm company culture, one that cared about the individual and tried to think ahead about what made people feel safe and loyal. By paying almost double its closest rival, Sam’s Club, and offering generous benefits and job stability in the form of guaranteed hours, he successfully encouraged intense company loyalty, even admiration. 

Sinegal insisted, “Culture isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing. Culture drives every decision you make. Culture is everything.” With a 12.9 percent annual growth rate, a turnover rate of just 7 percent compared to the usual 60–70 percent at other retailers, and almost nonexistent rates of employee theft (.11–.12 percent compared to the retail industry average of 1–2 percent), Sinegal proves that taking the warm approach—trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes and wondering what would they need to be productive, happy, or satisfied—is good for business.

Warmth builds loyalty and institutional knowledge. It communicates respect, and in doing so generates respect. What happens in these instances is the people working with you care more, about doing a good job, yes, but also about the bigger mission they work for. To that end, they want you to succeed. That translates into developing trust, and a willingness to embrace risk and innovation, and also letting you know when mistakes have been made or when things aren’t going the way they should long before they become crises, so you have time to fix problems or change direction. It means people care enough to tell you that problems exist before they metastasize. 

Originally posted on the HRPS blog.


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