To Be Humble or Not

January 8, 2018

Maintaining a level of humility is generally considered to be a good trait. After all we teach our children to be humble to a certain degree in sports, in school, in life. No one likes a person who gloats.

But is it always good to be a humble boss? A recent study says it’s good for a boss to be humble — as long as that’s what the firm’s employees expect.

Some workplace teams showed more creativity if the employees rated their bosses as showing more humility, Ohio State researchers studying workplaces in China found.

“Whether leader humility is a good thing really depends on the team members’ expectations,” said Jia (Jasmine) Hu, lead author of the study and associate professor of management and human resources at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

Humble leaders are most effective when team members expect a low degree of distance between the leaders and followers, Hu said. When there is low power distance, employees share power with their boss in a collaborative way.

But humility may be seen as a weakness when the power distance is high, and employees expect their boss to be dominant, take charge and give strong direction, she said.

“One practical implication for managers is that they need to understand what their team members expect and value from them,” Hu said.

The study, conducted with colleagues at Ohio State, Portland State University and Renmin University of China, was published online recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

For the study, the researchers collected data on work teams and team leaders from 11 information and technology companies in a major city in northern China at three time points over six months. In all, the final study sample included 354 members from 72 teams.

While this study was done in China, Hu said the results should be applicable to the United States. Other research has shown that, both in the United States and China, there is a wide variation in what employees expect from their managers and what they think their relationship should be like.

One lesson from these results should be that a business leader’s success is not dependent only on his or her attributes, she said.

“It is not as easy as saying humility is always a good or a bad thing for leaders,” Hu said. “Leadership is not just about how leaders behave, but also about their team members and what they want and expect.”