When it comes to experiences, balancing warmth and competence isn’t just about people.

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The concept of warmth and competence, the dimensions we humans use to size each other up and decide whether to extend trust and carry on with relationships, was formalized by Susan Fiske of Princeton University fame and has become more popularized by TED star, Amy Cuddy, and Human Brand author, Chris Malone. The idea though has been around in subtly different guises for many years. Think of character and competence, health and comfort, soft and hard skills, kindness and ability, IQ and EQ, all are stylized versions of the same basic idea that how we do things and our intentions as we do them (this is the warmth, character, comfort, soft skill, kindness, EQ component) are as important as what we can do (the competence, health, hard skill, ability, IQ component).

The easy explanation of how we use these two dimensions of human relating goes like this. When we come into contact with a stranger, deep in the recesses of our brains, we quickly size them up so we know whether they are a friend or foe. To do this, the mind asks a few questions. What are their intentions? Are they kind or not? Do they look menacing or not? This is the warmth dimension. We then try to determine how capable this person is at carrying out any possible harm, if indeed that might be their intention. Do they look strong or weak? Do they have weapons? Do they look like they could use those weapons? This is the competence dimension. You can see how this “sizing up” is a powerful tool that keeps us sharp and alive. And while most of us do not regularly have to size up people in order to survive, we do still perform this exercise in order to determine whether to trust or be wary of people and even organizations and businesses.

I’ve thought a lot about these dimensions and believe that they not only function in how we size up people and organizations but also in how we measure experiences, both customer and employee experiences. Let’s take a look at what I mean.

The key components of experiences fall into three broad buckets, 1) successful outcomes, we can call this one product, 2) the journey involved, we’ll call this one process, and 3) the civility of the people facilitating, this one is, yes, the people element. And that got me to thinking, how do the warmth and competence dimensions fit with these key experience components? While it is pretty easy to see how people can demonstrate warmth and competence, how, for example, do products do it? How about processes?

What is kindness or warmth in a product? Although it may seem a stretch at first, it begins to make sense when you ponder it a bit. Products demonstrate kindness and warmth in their form. When a product is beautiful, elegant, and clean, or, in some cases, hidden (new pipes, wiring, for example), it is kind to the consumer/owner. Being aesthetically pleasant demonstrates thoughtfulness and caring.

So, what about ability or competence in a product? This is all about function. When a product works and does what it is supposed to do, consistently, it demonstrates its competence, its ability.

We can think about processes in a similar vein. When a process is easy and uncomplicated, it demonstrates kindness or warmth to the person entrenched in it. On the flip-side, when processes are difficult, well, you guessed it, they’re not kind. Think about it, have you ever said something like, “I want to buy this thing but I hate the process on this company’s website?” Feels much like how you feel toward unkind people but it’s a process and it is similarly unkind.

As far as competence, processes must be effective, that is how they prove their ability. If you go all the way through a journey and really don’t get what you want or need, the process is useless and useless is a synonym for incompetence.


So what we can see here is that it is not only people who can demonstrate kindness and ability, products and processes in their own unique ways can demonstrate those things too. This is important to a business leader because it means they must really look hard at how those non-human elements demonstrate the dimensions as much as how their people demonstrate them.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • Is our product, the outcome we deliver to customers, beautiful and/or elegant in its unique way? Is it aesthetically pleasing in its look or beautifully hidden so as not to disturb the natural surrounding beauty? How can we make it more attractive?
  • Does our product or outcome function the way it should? Are there hassles in using it? How often are there breakdowns?
  • Are the processes we use to get people to success difficult? How many steps are there? How many people must be involved? How many points of contact must the end user connect with? Does the end user have to repeat things?
  • Are our processes effective? Do they result in success every time?
  • Do our people demonstrate care and concern? Are they courteous and civil?
  • Are our employees competent? Do they need training? Can they provide solutions?

These are but a few of the questions business leaders should be regularly asking about the experience of their business. And these questions are not only about employee to customer, they are also applicable to employee to employee. If you want a great customer experience, you must have a great employee experience and the warmth and competence dimensions and experience elements are part of both kinds. Employees want pleasing and functional outcomes, easy and effective processes, and caring and capable people to deal with as much as customers. Use the tools and thinking here to get a handle on the experiences of all of the people who encounter your business both inside it and outside it, and by making adjustments, you will see customer and employee happiness and loyalty not to mention greater overall success.

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