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Leader humility – a tendency to view oneself accurately and demonstrate appreciation for the contributions of others – is often extolled as a favourable leadership virtue, linked to empowerment of, and collaboration with others, as well as higher engagement from followers. But is humility a double-edged sword, with disadvantages that match or even outweigh its benefits?
Professors Zapata (University of Notre Dame) and Jones (Texas A&M University) explored this question through a series of experiments in their recent paper, “The consequences of humility for leaders: A double-edged sword.”
Interestingly, humility was beneficial for leaders, making them appear more interpersonally effective (i.e., reflected as high ratings on communal leadership characteristics). At the same time, it had costs for leaders because it also made them seem less assertive and skillful (i.e., indicated by low ratings on agentic leadership characteristics). One of the most important findings of the study was that contexts of success and failure also shaped these perceptions. Overall, this contributes a more balanced perspective of the positive and negative aspects of humility, with important practical implications for leader development.
In their work, Zapata and Jones examined the effects of expressions of leader humility on participants’ perceptions of their skillfulness, assertiveness, and autonomy (referred to as agentic traits) and their honesty, warmth, and cooperation (termed communal traits). The effects of leader humility on perceptions of leader effectiveness were also explored, as well as the role of context in shaping perceptions.
The authors conducted five studies. Across the five studies, a total of 1320 university students participated.
Studies one and two involved a team performance task, with a leader providing messages and feedback manipulated for higher or lower expressions of humility.
Studies three and four were simulations, where participants read and modified a newspaper interview with a CEO (study three) or an interview with an award-winning manager (study four) with statements manipulated for higher or lower expression of humility.
Study five then aimed to test the impact of context on the effects of leader humility. In other words, the authors tested whether contexts of success or failure of the leader’s organisation strongly affected the relationship between their humility and perceived agentic or communal characteristics.
Measures of agentic characteristics included competence (skillful, knowledgeable), assertiveness (assertive, decisive, influential), and independence (independent, self-reliant, self-directed). Measures of communal characteristics included warmth (warm, caring, amiable, kind), helpfulness (cooperative, helpful), and honesty (genuine, honest).
Participants also provided feedback on perceived leader effectiveness and their likelihood to undermine the leader.
The authors found that expressions of humility simultaneously enhanced perception of leader interpersonal effectiveness (i.e., communal traits), while reducing perceptions of leader assertiveness (i.e., agentic traits). Furthermore, they discovered that although an increase in communal traits improved participants’ perceptions of leadership effectiveness, it was not enough to offset the reduction in perceived leadership effectiveness that arose from decreased agentic characteristics. In turn, when participants perceived the leader as less effective, they were more likely to undermine the leader.
- Studies one and two demonstrated a significant link between high expressions of humility and reduced perceptions of agentic characteristics and leader effectiveness. This led to increased undermining, evidenced by two indicators – students were more likely to call into question their leader’s grading and their reduced willingness to award the leader with a gift card when given the opportunity.
- In studies three and four, a positive link was revealed between humility and communal traits that was not evident in the first two studies. Communal traits were linked to improved perceptions of leader effectiveness, for both CEO and manager level leaders.
- Study five demonstrated the importance of the performance context on the impact of humility on judgments of agentic characteristics. Irrespective of CEO expressions of humility, in failure scenarios (i.e. failed acquisitions) participants rated the leader’s agentic characteristics as low. This suggests that it was the context, and not the expression of humility that impacted the leader’s perceived agency. However, in success scenarios (i.e., successful acquisitions), leader humility was linked to reduced perceptions of agentic characteristics.
Taken together, the authors’ findings suggest that in addition to the current narrative around positive outcomes associated with leadership humility, there may also be costs, such as reduced perception of leader agency and effectiveness, and subsequent undermining in the form of reduced rewards.
The implication of these findings is that leaders need to carefully consider when and the way in which they express humility, with future research focused on how the humble leader may either emphasise their agentic capabilities or find other avenues to minimise undermining.
So what are the reader and the leader left to contemplate? Humility is without doubt, a double edged sword. It is appropriate in some contexts, but ineffective, even detrimental in others. Specifically, humility can lessen perceptions of agentic leadership, so if a situation requires agentic leadership then a humble approach may not be suitable. While the findings suggest that further research is needed, what is clear is that dexterity in the expression of humility is a prized capability that ought to be developed, if not already present in the leader.
Zapata, C.P, Hayes-Jones, L.C. (2019). The consequences of humility for leaders: A double-edged sword. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2019, vol. 152, pp. 47-63.
For more information, contact Belinda Ramirez