Competency will get you…. Nowhere!

by Ron Potter

Amy Cuddy has written at least three very profound books:

Amy says the first two things people want to know when they first meet you are:

  1. Can I trust this person?
  2. Can I respect this person?

Psychologists refer to these dimensions as warmth and competence, respectively.

Warmth is not measured on corporate evaluations

I often run an experiment with teams where half the team gets a list of characteristics found in a fictitious person.  The other half of the team gets a similar list of characteristics on another fictitious person.

Both lists contain words such as:

  • Intelligent
  • Skillful
  • Industrious
  • Determined
  • Practical
  • As well as a few other descriptions

There is one (and only one) difference in the two lists:

  • One list contains the word “Warm”
  • The other list contains the word “Cold”

I then have the whole team vote on characteristics such as:

  • generous vs. ungenerous
  • unhappy vs. happy
  • reliable vs. unreliable
  • frivolous vs. serious
  • imaginative vs. hardheaded
  • dishonest vs. honest
  • There are 16 total comparisons

(Remember that the lists are identical except for the words warm and cold.)

The group that has the word “warm” in their descriptor attributes the more positive characteristic to their fictitious person.

The group with the word “cold” in their descriptor attributes the more negative characteristic to their fictitious person.

Is a person warm or cold?  This one factor will set our expectations for that person and can be the difference of our trust factor!  Be a warm person.  It pays rewards.

Respect or Competence

In the book, Speed of Trust, author Stephen M. R. Covey lists four characteristics that need to be present before we trust someone.  This list has often helped my consulting when there is obvious (at least to me) mistrust on a team.  However, when I ask the team if they trust each other, the answers are almost always a positive yes.

But when I break down trust to this subset of characteristics, there is usually one where people have a concern.  “Yes I trust the person but….”

The list is

  • Integrity – Is the person always the same person no matter who they are talking with or what the circumstances are?
  • Intent – This one usually revolves around the issue of what is best for the team or company vs. what is best for the individual.  Is their intent focused on the best for others or the best for themselves?
  • Capabilities – The person may be sharp and accomplished but do they have the experiences necessary to work through the situation they face?  Are they capable?
  • Results – Has the person actually produced positive results.? Often people talk a good line or more likely have a list of reasons why something didn’t work.  Did they actually produce results in spite of the difficulties they faced?

When you break down the question of trust into these four components, it’s easier to deal with and identify.


Is trust more important than competency?  Or is competency the supreme measure of success and reliability?  If you think competency is the superior measurement, you need to read a chapter from Deep Change by Robert Quinn.  The chapter is titled “Tyranny of Competence”.

Amy Cuddy says “But while competence is highly valued, it is evaluated only after trust is established. And focusing too much on displaying your strength can backfire”.

Be trustworthy first!  It’s the only way your competency will have value.

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