Humility is generally regarded as a good thing in a person, and that certainly seems to be the case in our leaders. A recent study explored how people respond to humble (and not so humble) leaders. It found that being humble is great and certainly beneficial, just so long as humbleness is actually what your team expect of you.
“Whether leader humility is a good thing really depends on the team members’ expectations,” the authors say.
The research found that humble leaders were most effective when their team expected a close bond between them and the leader. When the power distance is low, employees expect to be operating in a collaborative environment whereby humbleness is a distinct virtue.
It wasn’t as good however when the power distance was high. In such a scenario, employees expect their boss to be dominant, taking charge of the situation and giving strong direction. The key is to understand just what your team expect from you.
Participants were recruited from 11 IT companies, with a mixture of both leaders and employees, with interviews conducted with each group over a six month period. Each team member was asked to rate the humility level of their boss at the start of the study to determine the power distance between them.
Then, three months later, each team member as asked how they shared information with each other, whilst six months later their leaders were quizzed on the creativity of their teams.
When the results were analyzed, it emerged that humble leaders tend to lead teams with higher levels of creativity, but only when team members had low power distance values (ie when they valued humbleness). The authors suggest that this is because such teams tended to exchange more information than in other teams.
“Leaders who scored higher on humility tended to facilitate information sharing between team members,” the authors say. “And when they shared more information with each other, they broadened the scope of team skills, more actively looked for novel solutions to problems, and were more creative.”
If there is one take away from the study, it’s probably that each team is unique and requires a unique approach to leading it. It’s not possible, therefore, to say that humility is always good or always bad. We often fall into the trap of assuming all success is down to the attributes of the leader themselves, when in reality things are much more nuanced.
“We often ignore the contextual factors that explain the failure or success of leaders. Leadership is not just about how leaders behave, but also about their team members and what they want and expect,” the authors explain.