Humility is a quality that is generally considered positive, but is that the case for leaders in the workplace? Humility is considered to have three parts: (1) acknowledgement of one’s limitations and mistakes, (2) an appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions and (3) openness to new ideas and feedback. The research thus far has shown that leader humility is received well by employees, however little is known about the possible downsides.
Researchers (Qin et al., 2020) suggest that the effectiveness of leader humility is related to how employees make sense of it. If employees have a “self-serving attribution,” meaning they believe their boss is being humble toward them because they are exceptional employees, this could lead to a sense of entitlement. The researchers further hypothesize that in turn, entitlement could lead to workplace deviance, a costly problem for organizations.
STUDY AND FINDINGS
The researchers conducted two studies with hundreds of employees from various industries in China. In the experimental study, participants were randomly assigned to one of two scenarios: low versus high leader humility. The participants were first asked to recall experiences when their boss was humble (or not humble), after which they completed a survey.
The researchers found that when employees engaged in high levels of self-serving attribution of their leader’s humility (i.e. employees believed that they are superior employees), their sense of entitlement also tended to be high. In turn, employees were also more likely to engage in workplace deviance.
The researchers also found that when self-serving attribution was low, it was likely to lead to a stronger, two-way relationship with the leader (also called “leader-member exchange”). Moreover, strong leader-member exchange was likely to lead to less workplace deviance.
The authors note that Eastern culture (such as in China) tends to experience lower levels of self-serving attribution in comparison to Western culture, which makes sense given that Eastern cultures are less individually-oriented. The authors explain that the study results, therefore, may actually be conservative compared to other cultures. It would be useful to conduct further research examining whether the study findings are stronger in Western contexts.
This research demonstrates that how employees make sense of leader humility is what determines whether or not it is effective. If employees have low self-serving attribution, it is more likely to lead to a better relationship with the leader and lower workplace deviance.
Given the research findings, the authors suggest that humble leaders communicate to employees that they treat all employees humbly, not only a select few. Another suggestion the authors provide is that leaders should demonstrate humility consistently across various contexts. This behavioral consistency makes it easier for employees to attribute leader humility to the leader’s traits, rather than to employees’ own strengths or contributions.
Qin, X., Chen, C., Yam, K.C., Huang, M. & Ju, D. (2020). The double-edged sword of leader humility: Investigating when and why leader humility promotes versus inhibits subordinate deviance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(7), 693-712.