When it comes to the best leaders, a slice of humble pie might be just what the CEO ordered, as research from the University of South Australia shows that humility is a critical leadership trait for cultivating cohesive, high-performing teams.

It’s an interesting finding, especially given that leaders are more commonly aligned with characteristics of confidence, charisma and influence. But in a post-COVID era where remote work is increasingly likely, understanding the nuances of good leadership is more important than ever.

Research Takeaways

Humble leaders need to:

  1. Acknowledge personal limitations.
  2. Publicly praise others for their strengths and contributions.
  3. Show a high willingness to learn from others.
  4. When necessary, step down and let followers to take the lead.
  5. Express empathy at work.

Evaluating 120 work teams comprising 495 team members, researchers found that leaders who demonstrate humility—through self-awareness, praising others’ strengths and contributions, and being open to feedback—can enhance positive team experiences while mitigating negative influences, to create stronger, more productive teams.

Lead researcher, Dr. Chad Chiu from UniSA’s Centre for Workplace Excellence, says leader humility is all about understanding interpersonal relationships and creating positive team norms.

“Most people understand the benefit of working in a ‘good’ team—the people get along, they communicate well, and they acknowledge each other’s skills and contributions, But not all interactions among members are so positive, and good leaders need to be able to navigate these,” Dr. Chiu says.

Increased team performance is affected more by lowering team negativity than boosting positivity.
“Many teams actually have ‘negative ties,’ where people see their peers as hindrances to getting the job done or may even dislike each other. Until now, understanding how leaders can mitigate these negative associations has been unclear.”

“Our research shows that one strategy for leaders to simultaneously enhance goodwill and trust while reducing any negative relationships in their teams is to express their humility.”

“Humility is characterized by high self-awareness, showing an appreciation of others and modeling a culture of learning. In humble leaders, this is demonstrated through open communications, listening well, praising a job well done, valuing the skills of each team member, and realizing that they as leaders, are not infallible.”

“Many of these skills can be taught, but it’s also important for senior managers to initiate a top-down impact on middle managers’ humility awareness and adoption.”

Curiously, the study showed that increased team performance is affected more by lowering team negativity than by boosting positivity.

“Team performance hinges more on a leader’s ability to diminish negativity within the team than their ability to boost friendship and social connections,” Dr. Chiu says.

“This is because teams with fewer negative ties—for example, extreme competitiveness or narcissism—are more likely to collaborate, communicate and support each other to complete team tasks. And while most teams usually have fewer negative ties, these act as ‘social debts’ and cannot be easily counterbalanced by positive relationships.”

“Team leaders must understand the true impact of humility as it can have a huge impact on the well-being and productivity of their team. Embrace it and you will thrive.”

This study was conducted in partnership with the State University of New York and the Brigham Young University. It can be accessed online at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0018726720968135

Source: University of South Australia