The warmth/competence matrix for women, from the West Wing to the workplace

The warmth / competence matrix is a useful tool to optimise a leader’s influence in the workplace, especially during a crisis.

Warmth is generally defined as the extent to which a person is friendly, trusted and kind, while competence is an individual’s intelligence, efficiency, and overall power.

For a study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman 50,000 leaders were each rated by an average of 13 people against various behaviours, that were then grouped under either Warmth or Competence. The conclusion in a nutshell was that:

  1. Leaders on average display both qualities evenly: “53.5% of leaders were dominant in Competence and 46.5% were dominant in Warmth

  2. Female leaders skew higher towards competence than warmth: “Stereotypes of women characterize them as demonstrating more Warmth; however, the data presents a different conclusion (…) 59.3% of women were more dominant in competence compared to 52.8% of men.

    Surely that’s a good thing? Actually no because:

  3. Passed a certain seniority level warmth becomes more important than competence: “61.2% of top level managers were dominant in Warmth

Why do female leaders skew lower towards warmth? One explanation for it was exposed by a famous study that asked people – male and female alike – to read a case about a successful venture capitalist and share their perception of that person. Half were given the case study with a man’s name (Howard), the other half with a woman’s name (Heidi).

The results showed that Howard was perceived by both men and women to be warm and generous while Heidi was perceived to be cold and selfish, not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for”. In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, who commented this study in her book Lean In: “Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.

What if warmth / competence for women is not a matrix but a spectrum?

To illustrate the difference, here is a mapping of 3 male characters of the beloved TV show West Wing and where they skew on a warmth / competence matrix:

All 3 have different personalities. Some exhibit borderline antisocial behaviours, but all are leadership material. Their lack of warmth can be compensated by competence: Toby’s anger management issues for example are often forgiven on account of his talent. Reciprocally, a lower skew on competence can be compensated by warmth, like when Bob (top left) is brought to the ticket as Vice President because he seems approachable and not threatening.

For the female characters, a lack of warmth cannot be compensated by more competence, or the other way around:

Abbey (right) is the First Lady but also a world-class physician. Her perceived lack of warmth and excessive comfort with her competence – for example insisting on being called “Dr Bartlet” – is addressed several times in the show.

Donna (left) starts as a naive junior assistant. She gets more knowledgeable as the show progresses but gets stuck for a long time in the green zone of the spectrum, not daring to ask for the career progression she deserves.

CJ (middle) starts as the very competent but charmingly goofy press secretary, making public mistakes like in season 3 when addressing the President’s multiple sclerosis. She also progresses towards the power end of the spectrum throughout the show, losing perceived warmth as she goes. That decision about the astronauts? Cold.

We should note that all these characters are white and that although gender biases are unfortunately intersectional, women of colour face additional biases.

In the illustrations above, the leadership “green zone” – with what we feel is an acceptable warmth/competence balance – is wider for the male leaders, while we prefer that female leaders operate on the narrow portion of the spectrum where warmth and competence overlap.

The warmth/competence bias has a measurable impact on the gender pay gap

Studies have confirmed what has long been an intuition for many female leaders: that negotiating salaries has a “social cost” for women. When a woman self-advocates and negotiates assertively for her salary, it takes away from her perceived warmth. The evaluators feel like she does not care about the business enough and are less willing to work with her. This contributes to explain why senior female leaders tend to earn less than their male peers.

There is more and more willingness to push women to seek top positions both in the workplace and the (actual) West Wing, but the leadership literature advising on how to seek these positions is still very male oriented. This is probably because historically there was simply not a lot of women in leadership positions. I once attended an excellent two-days training on how to grow business where none of the case studies involved a woman as the main character.

It is a known issue in business schools as well, where research revealed that only 9% of case studies described the leadership of a women protagonist, and “None of the teaching notes for the case studies with women protagonists raised their gender as a potential issue in analyzing the case, which (…) is a critical omission, as research shows that similar behavior is interpreted differently when observed in a man or a woman.“.

Female leaders need pragmatic advice

Most of us are aware of the business case to promote female leadership. As illustrated by McKinsey’s research: “A substantial differential likelihood of outperformance — 48 percent — separates the most from the least gender-diverse companies.” The question is how do we get there.

Due to the warmth/competence bias, not all negotiation advice or leadership techniques that work for men will work for women, which can be frustrating for women seeking pragmatic advice. I am ashamed to say that I initially discovered the brilliant comic Sarah Cooper by clicking on this link thinking it would be genuine advice: 9 Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies for Women.

Unconscious bias are uncomfortable, and rightly so. We are ashamed to have them and feel like they should not exist. We are willing to go through unconscious bias trainings to get rid of them. In parallel, we encourage female leadership through programmes that we hope will help them overcome internal barriers such as imposter syndrome.

Both of these aspects are important and necessary but I believe that there is a missing piece: providing women with actionable tools to counter the immediate effects of unconscious bias that work against them.

An example of such tool is called “relational accounts” and can help overcome the bias that takes away from women’s perceived warmth when they negotiate their salaries. The principle in a nutshell is to adopt the point of view of the negotiating counterpart and explain why in their view it is legitimate for you to negotiate a higher salary, while insisting that you do care about the business.

For example in her salary negotiation with Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg opened with this: “Of course you realize that you’re hiring me to run your deal team so you want me to be a good negotiator. (…) This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table.” There are more examples and strategies in this article about the research.

To quote the professor who conducted the study and tested the impact of this tool: “I should acknowledge that this idea of using “relational accounts” or “I-We” strategies drives some women crazy. It makes them feel like they are bending to unjust stereotypes or simply being inauthentic. I sympathize with that reaction. We were surprised while doing the research that it would be so hard to make the backlash effects go away. But, every movement needs its idealists and pragmatists, and I am playing the pragmatist here.

Ideally one day we will have removed all unconscious biases that prevent proper diversity in leadership positions, including gender diversity. We may even see a woman accessing the top job in the White House in our lifetime. Women would then be able to make full use of the warmth / competence matrix as it was intended and be their true, multidimensional selves. But while we are working on this long term goal, we should work on gathering more tools to accelerate these transitions.

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