Motivating Your Team Through Being Humble

Today we take a look at the leadership value of being humble in an essay inspired by the paper “Humble Leader Behavior and its Effect on Performance at the Team and Individual Level: A Multi-perspective Study, accepted in Group & Organization Management” and just published in the journal Group & Organization Management. In that paper, authors Shengming Liu, an assistant professor in the Department of Business Administration at Shanghai’s Fudan University;  Xin Lucy Liu a PhD student at the Columbia Business School at Columbia University; Hui Wang, a professor of organizational management at the Guanghua School of Management of Peking University in Beijing; and Ying Wang of Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics, combine cutting-edge management theory with, as they detail in the essay below, insights from two millennia ago. The four explain their process just after the abstract from the journal article.

Drawing upon social information processing theory, this study builds a multilevel model to explore the effects of humble leader behavior on performance in teams. Time-lagged and multi-source data were gathered from 298 employees across 70 work teams. Results indicated that at the individual level, humble leader behavior was positively related to individual performance via organization-based self-esteem, while at the team level, humble leader behavior was positively related to team performance via team potency. Moreover, team cognitive diversity moderated the indirect effects of humble leader behavior on individual and team performances, such that the positive indirect effects were stronger for teams with high cognitive diversity than for those with low cognitive diversity. Implications and limitations are also discussed.

Ice at the edge of free water
“The top class of virtue is like water, as water benefits ten thousand objects without any demands.” (Photo: Adrian Pelletier / Pixnio)

Two thousand years ago, an ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu left a famous saying to emphasize the virtue of humility, “the top class of virtue is like water, as water benefits ten thousand objects without any demands.” Humility denotes admitting personal limits, appreciating others’ strengths, and demonstrating teachability. However, we continue to witness influential world leaders refuse to admit their own mistakes, some are even described as “never sorry, never wrong, never weak”1. Such phenomenon has left us pondering over the following question: Can modern leaders still benefit from demonstrating humility to motivate their team effectively? If so, how and when?

Shengming Liu, left, Xin Lucy Liu and Hui Wang.

To answer this set of questions, we conducted research which was recently published in Group & Organization Management. Through a multi-source and time lagged field data collected from 298 employees across 70 work teams, we found that humble leaders can motivate better performances through enhancing team members’ confidence in themselves and in the whole team (i.e., organization-based self-esteem and team potency). Being recognized by a humble leader and learning from the leader to appreciate other teammates’ strengths are conducive to the aforementioned confidences. Therefore, by introducing the motivational perspective, our research advances our understanding about the influencing mechanisms of humble leader behavior at both the team and individual level.

More interestingly, we found that humble leader behavior is more effective in teams with higher cognitive diversity. Humble leader behavior enables each member in the cognitively diversified team to recognize their unique contribution and irreplaceable worthiness, and it also facilitates the whole diverse team to throw away their biases and appreciate their complementarity as a whole. Thus, this research also contributes an important boundary condition to humble leadership research, and we encourage managers who leads cognitively diverse followers to consider adopting humble leadership.

Two thousand years later, the workplace nowadays is more heterogeneous than ever before under rapid globalization. To motivate every single follower and glue them together, humility virtue is still (if not more) of great necessity for modern leaders to embrace differences and leverage the merit of diversity. Our research suggests that the ancient wisdom of humility that partially originated from Eastern culture can also benefit contemporary countries that cherish diverse heritage. We also encourage incoming researchers to take a further step and comprehensively explore the intriguing interplay between diversity and the effects of humble leader behavior.

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