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The two things people judge you on at work

Portrait of confident businesswoman against white background. Smiling female professional is standing with arms crossed. She is in formals.
Here's what people are actually judging you on. Image: Getty

It’s a thought that crosses everyone’s mind: “I wonder what they think of me?”

While it’s impossible to really know the answer, we do know that there are two things that our colleagues judge us on more than anything, according to leadership strategist and entrepreneur Shadé Zahrai.

“That [question] is a really important one when it comes to how you present yourself within a company and when you’re building relationships,” she told Yahoo Finance.

“People are wired to make assumptions, and it comes from our desire to protect ourselves and basically know who we can trust.”

This instinct extends beyond just our first impression of someone, which is formed in a split second based more on factors like our appearance and voice.


The desire to understand what people are truly about is instead at the heart of what people judge others on.

And it comes down to two things: warmth and competence, Zahrai first revealed in a now-viral TikTok post.

Why is warmth so important?

Young man smiling and looking at empty space while sitting on chair and using laptop against blue background
Why's warmth such a big deal? Image: Getty

“Warmth signals trustworthiness,” Zahrai said. That means that when we’re judging our colleagues on their warmth, we’re asking ourselves, “Can I give this person my car keys? Will they murder me in my sleep? Are they going to talk behind my back?”

Zahrai said one of the biggest questions around warmth is how people can show it in a professional context.

The good news is that it’s simpler than we might think.

“The key physical indicators of warmth are eye contact, smiling when you meet somebody, nodding your head when you agree with them, orienting your body towards them,” she said.

“It’s basically just being present with them so that they feel like you care.”

It can come down to whether you ask them about how they are and how their family is going.

What about competence?

Confident businesswoman giving presentation to colleagues in board room. Entrepreneur is explaining development graph to partners. They are planning at creative office.
Competence is critically important. Image: Getty

We judge other people on their competence because we want to know if we respect them.

“Competence is how you hold yourself, how you present yourself, the confidence that you have,” she said.

“People who are more confident are just perceived as being more competent and better at what they do. That can also come down to the language and the vocabulary that you use.”

That means displaying commercial acumen and an understanding of the business: without this, you won’t actually get that workplace pay-off.

“You’ve got to actually be good at what you do, because otherwise people might trust you but they might nor respect you from a business perspective.”

And respect is critical because that’s how you grow a business, build loyalty and attract and retain customers and clients who genuinely want to come back.

A critical topic for women

Zahrai said this topic is a critical one for women in the workplace, especially those who work in male-dominated industries.

“We know that a lot of women struggle when it comes to establishing competence because they’re often put in a box where there’s a high standard of them needing to be warm,” she said, referencing a TED Talk she gave on the topic in 2018.

A 2003 Columbia Business School study gave two groups of students two articles about the exact same person.

The story was the same, except in one of the articles, the woman was a high-powered Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Heidi Roizin. In the other, the featured person was named Howard.

While both groups of students judged Howard and Heidi equally on competence, Heidi was deemed unlikeable, selfish and the type of person you wouldn’t want to work with. Howard was deemed a titan of industry.

Zahrai said women face these unconscious double standards at work and it makes the competence-warmth piece a trickier balance, especially when it comes to speaking up at work.

“It’s actually about speaking up, being assertive and calling things out that aren’t right, but doing it in a way that elevates your competence and is seen in a positive light,” she said.

“Women have a much higher standard to live up to because of these double standards that we have in society.”

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