When Being a Humble Leader Backfires

There is a paradox when it comes to what we expect in leaders. On one hand, we believe that effective leaders display humility — they bring out the best in others, are open to admitting their shortcomings and mistakes, and give appreciation and credit to their followers. On the other hand, there is no shortage of examples of leaders who display little humility and yet have quickly risen to the top of organizations. In fact, success is often tied to ego, and many leaders talk about the pressure to appear competent and flawless, while humility might be interpreted as weakness, indecisiveness, or lack of confidence.

So, do humble leaders make more effective leaders? Do their teams have better outcomes?

A recent study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, set out to understand if humble leaders make more effective leaders and whether their teams have better outcomes.

The study found that leaders who displayed a modest self-view and showed appreciation to others’ ideas were more effective at facilitating the exchange of information. Further their teams were more creative as a result; i.e. when teams expected egalitarianism, having a humble leader increased knowledge and information sharing as well as helped those teams be more creative.

But the same effect didn’t hold when teams expected that power should be unevenly distributed. On teams where members expected leaders to be dominant and powerful, humble leaders were met with doubt and team members felt unsafe to speak up and take risks.

 

So, the big question is should a leader aim to be humble? And the answer is: It depends.

 

Below listed is some concrete advice for leaders trying to balance authority and humility.

 

Match your level of humility to what team members expect. One can increase a team’s effectiveness by being humble, only if team members expect a leader to display that characteristic. Pay attention to what values the team holds, and adjust your behavior accordingly. If your team demonstrates a desire to share power, your humility can encourage concrete and frequent information exchange, in-turn promoting creativity. However, in teams where unequal distribution of power is accepted, members are likely to expect the leader to take charge and make important decisions. In these circumstances, showing humility can be counterproductive. Though, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t display humility at all.

Encourage creativity by helping team members exchange information. The open exchange of ideas and knowledge has been shown to increase creativity. If you manage a team where power is expected to be shared, rely on your humility to create a safe space where team members are willing to take risks in making suggestions and to openly disagree. Make it clear that you view mistakes as opportunities for the team to learn.

Develop your humility. Although humility is a relatively stable characteristic, leaders can learn how to display humble behaviors. If you find that humility is what your team members expect and value, focus on encouraging them to see shortcomings as opportunities to learn, and on identifying as well as appreciating team members’ strengths and contributions. Companies can incorporate these skills into leadership training or coaching programs.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge-based management consulting firm in India, believes that not everyone wants a humble leader. So, you need to adapt your style to your team’s expectations. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t display humility at all. One can still be open about their limitations and weakness. But it’s better to do so while simultaneously demonstrating that you have the ability to overcome and learn from your shortcomings and lead your team to improvement and growth. This will allow you to harvest the advantage of displaying humility in encouraging creativity, while showing the confidence and power that matches your team’s expectations. However, if the people you lead do expect humility, demonstrating it can benefit your team’s creativity and success.

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