Humility is a misunderstood trait often associated with weakness in the United States. Psychology, however, defines humility as an attribute that occurs in a social context, and it is characterized by a willingness to view one’s own strengths and weaknesses accurately and to judge others’ strengths and shortcomings accurately as well. Being humble also means being teachable and open to growth experiences.[i]
A leader who demonstrates humility will draw focus to others’ strengths, encourage others to share their perspectives, possess a willingness to acknowledge his/her own limitations, and support others’ growth and achievement. Furthermore, a humble leader will inspire follower loyalty and commitment,[ii] reinforce job satisfaction, work engagement, and employee retention,[iii] and counter the negative effects of leader narcissism, leading to more positive follower outcomes.[iv]
A non-humble or authoritarian leader, in contrast, will avoid all appearances of being weak. He/she will be over-confident and self-righteous, will not publicly acknowledge mistakes, and will seek personal status above the status of his/her team. These behaviors are contagious and will create teams of competitive individuals vying for individual status instead of focusing on achieving the goals of the team.[v] How does this leader behavior impact team performance?
Last year, a study examining the effects of leader humility on team performance was conducted by Bradley Owens and David Hekman.[vi] Using data from 607 subjects organized into 161 teams, this study induced humility in a laboratory setting, in a longitudinal lab study across six weeks, and in a field study completed in a health services context. Participants in all three studies completed tasks and then rated the humility of their leaders, their teams, or both. The results of this research showed that leaders’ humble behaviors were contagious and that leaders modeling humility inspired team members to be humble as well. In the end, the teams led by the humble leader performed better on all their respective tasks. It is tempting to view these results as representing a best-case scenario that can only exist in rare settings; but the results of each of the three studies augmented one another to demonstrate that these results are consistent across different types of settings and across different spans of time.