Should Leaders Be More Humble? Sometimes, Yes

A new study finds that a leader who shows humility can help drive creativity within an organization if that meets the expectations of his or her employees.

You may have a certain vision of leadership in your head—powerful, decisive, authoritative.

But humble? That might seem a little less expected. However, a study recently featured in the Journal of Applied Psychology [paywall] makes the case that expectation is everything when it comes to the relationship you have with your employees.

The study—a collaboration between researchers at Ohio State University, Portland State University, and China’s Renmin University—analyzed 72 teams of people at information technology companies in China, first having the members of those teams rate the humility of their leaders over six categories. The initial analysis also looked into the “power distance” between the leaders and their team members—how the disparity in authority affected the team’s relationship with their leader.

“Humble leaders were those who gave employees a chance to speak up and have a voice in the decision-making process and who also acknowledged their own limitations,” Ohio State business professor Jasmine Hu, who served as the lead author of the study, explained in a news release.

After three months, the teams were asked to rate how well they shared information; after six months, the teams rated their creativity.

The report ultimately found that when there was a low power distance, humble leaders proved more effective at driving creativity. On the other hand, when the power distance was high, humility proved more of a deterrent than a benefit.

“One practical implication for managers is that they need to understand what their team members expect and value from them,” Hu added.

While the research focused on teams in Chinese companies, the results largely sync up with similar studies done with teams at American companies.

Ultimately, though, Hu emphasizes that the point of the study isn’t that humility is always the best policy—rather, that humility may be the best option given the team and the organization’s needs. If a team is built on an authoritative structure where the leader has a higher stance than the people on his or her team, that makes for the best approach; if the distance between leaders and team members is less pronounced, other strategies might prove more effective.

“Leadership is not just about how leaders behave, but also about their team members and what they want and expect,” she added.

(marekuliasz/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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