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It does not always pay to be a humble leader

In job interviews, a common question asked of potential management recruits is their leadership style. Understandably, many interviewees would probably seek to portray themselves as humble leaders. But have the benefits of humble leadership been overstated?

It does not always pay to be a humble leader

Research has shown that humble leadership behaviour can indeed produce positive effects for teams and for firms as a whole, but this was far from universal.

In job interviews, a common question asked of potential management recruits is their leadership style. Understandably, many interviewees would probably seek to portray themselves as humble leaders.

Recently a growing body of books and articles have put forward seemingly conclusive evidence that humble leaders are beneficial for workers, teams and organisations.

Such leaders don’t have an overinflated opinion of themselves; are quick to acknowledge their own limits, weaknesses and mistakes; appreciate others’ strengths and contributions and display an openness to learn and adopt new ideas.

But have the benefits of humble leadership been overstated? Are its drawbacks — as well as potential costs — overlooked? In short, is humble leadership all it’s cracked up to be?

In a recent study at NUS Business School, working with colleagues at universities in China, we sought to show that humble leadership can have positive as well as negative effects, such as fuelling a sense of entitlement among subordinates and leading to deviant workplace behaviour.

This might include using offensive language, acting rudely towards colleagues, and making fun of or saying hurtful things to co-workers.

Much previous research on leader humility has looked at the direct impact of a leader’s humble behaviour on that of their subordinates.

Yet this fails to take into account how subordinates themselves interpret the reasons behind their bosses’ behaviour — in other words, why are they behaving humbly?

This is important, because the attributions that subordinates place on their leader’s actions shape their own reaction to that behaviour.

In our study we conducted a series of anonymised online surveys and experiments with 349 alumni from several of China’s biggest universities.

These individuals were selected to ensure a representative spread of different ages and industries, ranging from manufacturing to banking and information technology.

The findings showed that humble leadership behaviour can indeed produce positive effects for teams and for firms as a whole, but this was far from universal.

In one experiment, we randomly assigned half of the employees to recall an incident in which their leader were humble to them (for example seeking their advice or admit when he or she didn’t know how to do something) and the other half, the control group, to just recall an incident in which their leader spoke to them in the previous week.

This compares their reactions in situations when the employees felt the humility of a leader, versus situations when the interactions with the leader were more neutral.  

Participants answered questionnaires that measured how they view their leader’s humility, how strongly the participants felt about themselves and the degree of deviant workplace behaviour.

For example, they rated how much they agreed with entitlement statements such as “I honestly feel I’m just more deserving than others” and “People like me deserve an extra break now and then”.

Statements on deviant workplace behaviour included “I came to work late without permission” and “I started an argument with someone at work”.

After tabulating scores, we found out that when a leader is humble but the subordinate attributes this humility to his or her own strengths, he or she is significantly more likely to feel entitled and engage in deviant workplace behaviour than a subordinate who attributes the leader’s humility to other reasons.  

This interpretation of another person’s behaviour, known to psychologists as “self-serving attribution”, is a common and instinctive human reaction from individuals experiencing positive events.

For example, an employee who has received a promotion is more likely to attribute the development to his or her strengths, skills and productivity, rather than attributing it to support from a supervisor or because the rest of their colleagues are incompetent.

INFLATED PERCEPTIONS

In the case of humble leaders, this self-serving attribution by subordinates can manifest itself in a number of ways. Take, for example, a situation where a leader acknowledges his own limitations on a topic and admits that his subordinates are more knowledgeable.

Such behaviour would typically be categorised as humble leadership. But seen from the viewpoint of employees, many may interpret this as a reflection that they are more capable than their leaders.

As a result, employees who make this self-serving attribution of their leader’s humble behaviour experience inflated perceptions of their capabilities, in turn leading to higher levels of entitlement.

Or take another situation where a leader seeks feedback, ideas and help from his subordinates. Again, to an outsider this may seem a relatively benign display of humility.

However, employees who interpret this in a self-serving manner are likely to see this as an indication that they are more knowledgeable and competent than their leaders, leading to exaggerated perceptions of their capabilities and fuelling a feeling of entitlement.

Our study is not aimed at disputing the many positive effects of humble leadership. Rather it aims to challenge the consensus that leader humility is universally beneficial, showing it has mixed benefits resulting from how it is perceived and acted upon by subordinates.

The obvious question then is how to maximise the positive effects of leader humility and minimise the negative?

As with many issues, simple awareness is a large part of the solution. Recognising that humility is not always the best leadership choice is an important first step.

By being aware of the different ways employees may interpret humility, humble leaders should pay attention to and be more careful when expressing humility to those who may make a high self-serving attribution of their behaviour.

For example, a humble leader could make an effort to communicate that he or she treats all employees humbly instead of treating only select individuals this way.

Likewise, demonstrating the same humility consistently across different situations can help to reduce self-serving attribution among employees. This is because when behaviour is consistently applied it is generally easier for individuals to attribute it to a leader’s inner characteristics rather than to his subordinates’ own strengths and contributions.

Whilst further research is needed, our study shows that humility is certainly a double-edged sword.

What is also clear is that flexibility and dexterity in the use of humility is a capability that firms should value and seek to develop among their leaders.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sam Yam Kai Chi is an assistant professor in the Department of Management and Organisation at the National University of Singapore Business School. These are his personal views.

Related topics

management leadership humility workplace boss Jobs

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