The 2 Traits People Judge You by in the Workplace

Mike Raab
The Raabit Hole
Published in
5 min readOct 9, 2020

Photo by Rebrand Cities from Pexels

A few weeks ago, I began my MBA education at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, which also happens to be my current employer (it’s complicated…)

This week, I had my first “lightbulb” moment in one of my classes, “Leadership in Organizations” taught by Professor Loran Nordgren. The subject of the class was which characteristics people implicitly judge us by (and to be fair, we judge others by) to determine leadership potential. Once revealed, the traits were obvious, and it brought a flood of realizations of implicit judgements, beliefs, and practices I’ve developed throughout my career, and finally contextualized them for me.

The first trait is obvious: Competence. We pretty quickly make judgements on how competent other people are, and once we make these judgements, they’re difficult to change. We typically make judgements of competence on evaluations of presentation (age, eye contact, assertiveness, posture, clothing, etc.), position (professional titles), and performance (education, honors & awards, experience & know-how).

The second trait, though, is the surprising one — and one which I feel fortunate to have stumbled upon years ago and realized it’s value independently: Warmth! How likeable and trustworthy do others perceive you as? This is complicated by human psychology, as we’re conditioned to like people who are “similar” to us and those who demonstrate that they support and care about us. While this may sound discouraging, especially to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts — the “similarity” dimension is not restrained strictly to biological or genetic similarities — but includes any shared experiences and interests, which may take more effort to uncover, but are likely present in any group of people in an organization.

An anecdote: my first job out of college was an executive assistant at a TV studio. After I had been there for a few months, another exec hired a new assistant that I had to coordinate with regularly. She was one of the most kind people I had met in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. She was also utterly incompetent at her job, which frustrated me to no end for months.

Learning about these two traits of implicit judgement in the workplace, it retroactively became clear she was Homer Simpson. Let me elaborate… Nordgren uses characters from The Simpsons to demonstrate the four quadrants of the Competency / Warmth matrix:

Credit: Loran Nordgren, Kellogg School of Management

My experience with this colleague was a growing experience, which led to me read How to Win Friends and Influence People, a book that undoubtedly shifted my perspective at the age of 24 and made me realize that interpersonal “warmth” was a significant differentiator and strength when working with anyone. Being “cold” gets you nowhere with people. Whatever message you think you’re sending with being cold (competence? importance? leadership?), you’re actually just perceived as being an asshole that no one wants to work with.

Years ago, while thinking about a different colleague at the same company, I wrote about the reference of a colleague to another as “the best,” (as in, “oh, she’s the best!”) and described it as below:

Have you ever worked with someone whom other people frequently describe as “the best?” It’s not usually because these people are necessarily the best person at fulfilling their job duties, rather that everyone enjoys working with them due to their positivity, kindness, and desire to be helpful. — On Lessons Learned from a 98 Day Journey

Sitting in class discussing these traits, I realized what I was describing years ago were individuals who are high on both competence and warmth!

Interestingly, efforts to demonstrate one of these traits can also undermine the other trait. Being overly forthcoming about your accomplishments, which may increase your perceived competence, also typically undermines how warm others perceive you as. For instance, when I see someone’s LinkedIn profile is written in the third person and lists all of their achievements, I am turned off and am less interested in collaborating with that individual. Everyone knows you wrote this profile! Why would you write about yourself in third person?

Even before learning about these two traits, I had intentionally constructed my LinkedIn profile to be what I thought was more “accessible,” which I now realize was actually an attempt to be perceived as “warm.”

My LinkedIn description: balancing competence & warmth?

Armed with the knowledge that our competence and warmth are implicitly judged by others, what can you do to improve their perceptions your leadership ability? The first step, in my opinion, is to focus on warmth. Invest the time to get to know your colleagues on a personal level and uncover what you have in common. Consistently demonstrate that you support them and care about them by having genuine conversations about things they care about and are interested in. When I left my second job, which I had only had for 10 months, I left personalized handwritten cards to all ~30 colleagues in my division. I’m pretty certain that I could reach out to any of those individuals in the future, and their perception of my warmth would be high enough to at least warrant a response.

I want to point out that as humans, we also have pretty effective bullshit detectors — you can’t approach this strategy in a transactional manner — you need to actually be interested in getting to know people on a personal level. Informally, this has become a game for me over the past few years — what’s the most significant commonality I can uncover the first time I meet someone? Having traveled to the same interesting place? Similar career experiences? Fears, vulnerabilities, insecurities (my favorites!)?

This simple framework is something that I have intuitively started to realize over my first 8 years in the professional world, but I desperately wish someone would have pointed out earlier. It’s simple enough to keep in mind and act on, and important enough to remember. How do you demonstrate your competence and warmth?