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Leadership Development, Career Success, The Science of Leadership

Friendliness Outweighs Competence When It Comes to Teamwork

Standing out as an excellent teammate is one of the best ways to ensure you always have a seat at the table, but what qualities are teams looking for when selecting who they want to work with?

According to a new study by a joint team of researchers led by Cynthia Maupin at Binghamton University’s School of Management, it’s all about friendliness and trustworthiness over everything else, including individual competence.

Today in The Science of Leadership, we explore how the team used different voice types to come to their conclusions and what we can take away from their findings to help us stand out as stellar teammates in the future.

THE STUDY: HOW Voice Signals Social and Human Capital

The researchers focused their study on a cohort of MBA students to determine what a team values when selecting teammates. 

At the start of the semester, the students were randomly assigned to a team determined by the researchers. Later in the semester, the teams were broken up and the students were told to create new teams, working with whomever they wanted.

Once these new teams were formed, the students reflected on why they chose their specific teammates. The researchers then examined these choices to determine how students “signaled” their human and social capital. 

You can think of human capital as how competent someone is and how well they perform their tasks, and social capital as how trustworthy and friendly a person is.

The team found that students actually “signaled” their human and social capital by using two different voices — challenging and supportive — when speaking to one another.

Challenging vs. Supportive Voices

Before we continue with what the team found, let’s look at how these voices differ. Keep in mind that while these voices are different, most people use a combination of them depending on the setting and situation. 

The Challenging Voice

This voice is direct and focuses on outcomes, efficiency, and new ideas. It challenges the status quo and looks to produce results. The Challenging Voice is all about signaling human capital value and what a person can bring on a tangible level to the team.

The Supportive Voice

The Supportive Voice focuses on social capital by creating trust and friendly cohesion. It aims to build stronger interpersonal relationships but doesn’t necessarily focus on outcomes. The core motivation for using this voice is to connect seamlessly with others.

When it comes to teams and leaders, the supportive voice is preferred over the challenging voice.

The Winner: The Supportive Voice

When the team analyzed their results, they came to an interesting conclusion: friendliness is valued higher than competence when examined head-to-head.  

“Our findings suggest that when people feel like they can trust you, even if you’re not necessarily the best worker, they’re going to be more likely to want to work with you,” Maupin said. “They know that there are likely to be fewer interpersonal issues in that case.”

It turns out that being a great partner and collaborator can smooth out potential missing competencies while also signaling honesty and openness, building trust and strengthening bonds. Overly challenging voices lack most of these interpersonal skills, making them harder to get along with on a personal level.

The Real Power: Combining Voices

Those who exhibited both the supportive and the challenging voice in tandem were the most sought-after team members. After all, being a well-rounded, competent, and friendly person is always something to strive for.

Maupin also concludes that using a combination of supporting and challenging voices is even more important now than before the pandemic because many rely on virtual meetings that can strip away much of these signals.

“Without those in-person interactions, people have less time to be able to make decisions and assessments about coworkers. You may only be seeing them on Zoom meetings,” she said.

“You really need to speak up in both constructive and supportive ways to make your human and social capital signals apparent whenever you’re working with people virtually, especially if you’re looking for future team opportunities.”

NSLS Leadership Insights

Servant Leadership

The new findings point out that most people want to work closely with others who are more like friends than simple teammates. They want to feel a connection, be heard, and most importantly, be supported. 

For leaders, all of these aspects come together to form a leadership style called servant leadership.

What is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is the concept that if you fully support those around you, you empower them to perform at their best.

“When members of the community see your passion and your commitment through your actions, they want to be connected to you,” wrote Bethany VanBenschoten, Assistant Director of Leadership Development and NSLS Chapter Advisor at Utica College, in a guide to servant leadership for the NSLS. 

“Servant leadership goes against the beliefs that leadership is defined as hierarchical, patriarchal, and related to wealth or status. Instead, it’s focused on serving others to help them grow, often without the title or recognition that comes with many leadership roles.”

Though not directly examined by the team, the new study adds evidence to support the efficacy of this type of leadership since servant leaders likely utilize the supportive voice regularly. 

The next time you find yourself in a group setting, don’t fret about being the most skilled; instead, focus on how you interact with those around you.

The Science of Leadership connects cutting-edge leadership research to the real world.

Ready to dig deeper? Read the team’s full report, Voice as a Signal of Human and Social Capital in Team Assembly Decisions, in the Journal of Management

Want to learn more about servant leadership? Check out our conversation with servant leader Paul Damico, former President of Moe’s Southwest Grill and current CEO of Global Franchise Group, on our Motivational Mondays podcast.

Have a burning question about any of the topics we’ve covered? Email us at We’d love to hear from you.