There is a paradox when it comes to what we expect in leaders. On the one hand, we believe that effective leaders display humility — they bring out the best in others, are open to admitting their shortcomings and mistakes, and give appreciation and credit to their followers. Recent public scandals demonstrate what lack of humility can do in a public setting. Take United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, whose initial response to the violent removal of a fare-paying passenger from one of the company’s planes led to a public backlash. Or the notorious case of Martin Shkreli, the former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who failed to apologize for dramatically raising the price of a life-saving drug. These figures were skewered for being egotistical, arrogant, and refusing to admit their mistakes.
On the other hand, there is no shortage of examples of leaders who display little humility and yet have quickly risen to the top of organizations. In fact, success is often tied to ego, and many leaders talk about the pressure to appear competent and flawless, while humility might be interpreted as weakness, indecisiveness, or lack of confidence.
So, do humble leaders make more effective leaders? Do their teams have better outcomes?
These are questions we set out to address in a field study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. We predicted that leader humility would be a better match for some teams than others and that whether leader humility leads to positive outcomes for a team would depend on team members’ expectations of how the leader should behave. Specifically, we proposed that power distance — the degree to which people consider the unequal distribution of power in a team acceptable and legitimate — would affect whether members expected a leader to be humble. When power distance is high, members would expect leaders to take charge and give strong direction. But when power distance is low, members would expect more humility.
We tested this perspective in 72 work teams and 354 individual members from 11 IT companies in China, using web-based surveys over six months. In the first phase of our study, we asked individual members to rate their leaders’ expressed humility against a series of statements such as, “My team leader is open to the advice of others,” “My team leader admits it when s/he doesn’t know how to do something,” and “My team leader takes notes of others’ strengths.” We also asked respondents to rate their own power distance value, using statements such as, “When a performance appraisal made by the supervisor does not fit with subordinates’ expectations, the employees should feel free to discuss it with the supervisor,” and “In order to have efficient work relationships, it is often necessary to bypass hierarchical lines.”
Three months later, we measured the extent to which individual members exchanged information and shared knowledge with their teammates, and the degree to which members felt psychologically safe to speak up. We followed up after another three months and asked team leaders to rate their teams’ creativity with questions such as, “How well does your team produce new ideas?” and “How useful are those ideas?” Creativity is a key criterion for a team’s long-term effectiveness and success.
We found that leaders who displayed a modest self-view and showed appreciation to others’ ideas were more effective at facilitating the exchange of information and their teams were more creative as a result. However, leader humility was positively related to team information sharing three months later only in teams with low power distance. In other words, when teams expected egalitarianism, having a humble leader increased knowledge and information sharing and helped those teams be more creative.
But the same effect didn’t hold when teams expected that power should be unevenly distributed. In fact, we found that in teams with high power distance, leader humility was associated with lower levels of psychological safety. On teams where members expected leaders to be dominant and powerful, humble leaders were met with doubt and team members felt unsafe to speak up and take risks.
So, should a leader aim to be humble? According to our research, the answer is: It depends. Here is some concrete advice for leaders trying to balance authority and humility.
Match your level of humility to what team members expect. Our findings show that you can increase team effectiveness by being humble only if team members expect a leader to display that characteristic. Pay attention to what values the team holds, and adjust your behavior accordingly. If your team demonstrates a desire to share power, your humility can encourage more dense and frequent information exchange and promote creativity. In teams where the unequal distribution of power is accepted, however, members are likely to expect you to take charge and make important decisions. In these circumstances, showing weakness through humility can be counterproductive. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t display humility at all. You can still be open about your limitations and weakness, but it’s better to do so while simultaneously demonstrating that you have the ability to overcome and learn your shortcomings and lead your team to improve and grow. This allows you to harvest the advantage of displaying humility in encouraging creativity and show the confidence and power that matches your team’s expectations.
Encourage creativity by helping team members exchange information. The open exchange of ideas and knowledge has been shown to lead to creativity. If you manage a team where power is expected to be shared, rely on your humility to create a safe space where team members are willing to take risks in making suggestions and to openly disagree. Make clear that you view mistakes as opportunities for the team to learn.
Develop your humility. Although humility is a relatively stable characteristic, leaders can learn how to display more humble behaviors. If you find that humility is what your team members expect and value, focus on encouraging them to see shortcomings as opportunities to learn and on identifying and appreciating team members’ strengths and contributions. Companies can incorporate these skills into leadership training or coaching.
Our research suggests that not everyone wants a humble leader, so you need to adapt your style to your team’s expectations. However, if the people you lead do expect humility, demonstrating it can benefit team creativity and success.