Humble leaders build high-performing companies

What personality traits make for a better boss? Do leaders who recognize their own shortcomings and are open to the ideas of others, perform better than individuals who are so focused on themselves they disregard others’ views? Is a humble boss more effective than a narcissistic boss?

A team of researchers from the W. P. Carey School set out to answer these questions. First, they developed a model of how CEO humility can filter through an organization. Then, they created a questionnaire that measures individuals’ humility. Finally, they gave the survey to 63 private sector CEOs and about a thousand top and middle level managers who work for these chief executives.

The answers that the respondents gave revealed both the personality traits of the CEOs and how managers below them responded to the executives’ leadership styles. The main finding: humble bosses perform best.

“These kinds of leaders are more likely to empower others, to trust others, and to work well with others,” said Management Professor Angelo Kinicki, one of the authors of the study. “And when you do that, people feel good, and when they feel good, other good things happen. People in the organization collaborate more, and productivity and attitudes toward work improve.”

The study was reported in the article, “Humble Chief Executive Officers’ Connections to Top Management Team Integration and Middle Managers’ Responses,” published earlier this year in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly. The authors include three members of the W. P. Carey School’s Management faculty, Emeritus Professor Anne S. Tsui, Professor David A. Waldman and Kinicki, as well as National University of Singapore Assistant Professor Amy Y. Ou, who received her doctorate at the W. P. Carey School and Zhixing Xiao of George Washington University, and Lynda Jiwen Song of Renmin University of China.

A long journey to answer a simple question

The idea that led to the study originated with Ou, when she was working toward her doctorate at the W. P. Carey School several years ago. “She said, ‘I wonder if humble leaders would be better leaders than other types of leaders,’ ” said Kinicki, who was one Ou’s faculty advisers. “That was the fundamental research question she posed.”

The researchers, all of whom are experts in organizational behavior, combed through the academic literature on humility and leadership, which meant crossing into other disciplines, including psychology, philosophy and religion.

The team concluded that previous studies on humility and management failed to capture all of the varied dimensions of humility and also did not identify the mechanisms by which leaders’ humility can cascade through organizations.

“We decided to see if we could clear up the misunderstandings in the literature and come up with a better way to measure humility using a survey instrument that we could then test it in the field,” Kinicki said.

To devise a measure of humility, the researchers identified various dimensions of the trait, and then devised questions designed to elicit answers that would reveal whether respondents exhibited those dimensions. Before using the questionnaire in the field, the researchers gave it to several hundred undergraduate students to see if the results would reveal any flaws in the survey.

For a couple of reasons, the researchers decided early in the process that China would be a good location to conduct the study.

In order for the project to succeed, the participation of many people would be needed. Both Ou, who is from China, and Tsui, who has done considerable work in China, had many contacts among business leaders in the country, and they believed they could find a sufficient number of volunteers.

“You need 60-some CEOs who will participate in the survey and also allow you to survey their organizations,” Kinicki said. “It’s hard to get that kind of data.”

The companies chosen for the study were local, private enterprises in both manufacturing and services. Company sizes ranged from fewer than 100 to 12,000.

Lessons from China for the U.S.

Another reason the researchers chose to conduct the study in China was that they suspected that CEOs from that country would be diverse on the humbleness scale. Because of China’s cultural, religious and economic history, the country’s business executives would include some individuals who are very humble, others who are narcissistic, and others in between, the researchers believed.

China’s history of Confucianism, Taoism, and collectivism would tend to produce leaders who are aware of the concerns and needs of other people, the researchers reasoned. On the other hand, China, in recent decades, opened to the world economy, and many business leaders in the country had experience working in organizations modeled after Western companies, where assertive, self-focused leaders are the norm.

“China is growing in an economic way to be more market focused, so therefore you would likely find just as many CEOs who were not guided by those Confucian and collectivist principles,” Kinicki said.

In addition, China traditionally has been a high “power distance” country, in which there is a big gap in power between leaders and the masses.

The authors note that because the study was done in China, it is impossible to say with certainty that the conclusions apply in other societies. However, the way that leaders’ humility affects an organization should be the same everywhere, according to the researchers.

“There’s a process by which humility spreads,” Kinicki said. “There is a contagion effect. When leaders are humble, they empower people. This process is going to work in the United States in the same way that it works in China.”

To test this hypothesis, the researchers now are designing new studies to measure humility of leaders in the United States and to determine the effects these traits have on organizations, according to Kinicki. The new studies also will examine profitability of the companies to determine whether humility in a chief executive can boost the bottom line.

Humility is contagious in companies

In the study on CEOs in China, the researchers developed a theoretical view of what constitutes humility and a model of how the effects of humility spread through an organization.

CEOs who are humble are self-aware and open to feedback, according to the researchers. Humble CEOs also appreciate others and tend not to focus on themselves.

The model predicts that these attitudes and behaviors will empower a company’s leadership, promoting participation and confidence, as well as a sense of autonomy and meaning. The top management team thus is more likely to collaborate, make joint decisions, share information and have a shared vision.

With top management working together, an empowering organizational climate emerges, prompting middle managers to become more engaged and committed and to perform better at their jobs, according to the model.

To find out if the model was accurate, the researchers had to survey managers at different levels inside companies. For this study, the research team decided to look at three levels of the corporate hierarchy — the CEO, the top management team or TMT and the mid- and upper-level managers below the TMT.

Most of the questionnaires were given in person at company sites in China. Amy Ou conducted the surveys herself with help from Zhixing Xiao and Lynda Jiwen Song.

“Amy was driving around China in a car for months collecting data from all these different companies,” Kinicki said. “She was away from home for a long time and got pretty lonely.”

Getting ahead by being nice

When the surveys were completed and the results analyzed, the researchers found strong correlations among humble CEOs, integrated top management teams, empowering organizational climates and effective middle managers.

The results support the researchers’ initial hypotheses “that humble CEOs are connected to TMTs’ and middle managers’ responses by shared perceptions that cascade across hierarchical levels,” the authors wrote.

Kinicki said that the study contradicts a stereotype of humble bosses as weak and self-effacing. “Humble leaders are not necessarily soft. They can be very direct and very opinionated. People sometimes have the wrong impression of what humility really is.”

Humble leaders may be harder to find in the United States than in China, but some US companies have figured out that humility in the corner office benefits other levels of management and the organization as a whole, according to Kinicki.

He cited Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey, who has espoused the concept of “conscious capitalism.” Said Kinicki, “He believes companies should do things for the betterment of society, not just to make profit. That’s what a humble leader would do. Humble leaders infuse positivity into their companies.”

Kinicki also cited recent comments by Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of People Operations at Google, saying that humility is one of the main traits it looks for in new hires.

Since the findings of the study were released, the researchers have been flooded with media inquiries. Articles about the study have appeared in scores of local, regional and national publications, including Forbes and USA Today.

All of the media interest makes sense to Kinicki. “The study has a positive message,” he said. “It says you can get ahead and be really successful by putting others in front of yourself, by treating people nice, by not being overly boastful and by caring about the greater good.”

Bottom line:

  • A team of researchers at the W. P. Carey School set out to investigate whether humble CEOs can positively influence the performance of mid-level managers. They devised a questionnaire that measured humility and gave the survey to 63 CEOs and a thousand top and middle level managers in the companies.
  • The researchers chose to conduct the study in China, in part, because they expected to find CEOs with diverse levels of humility in the country. Confucianism, Taoism and collectivism all would tend to promote humbleness, while the country’s shift to a market-driven economy based on foreign models might pull leaders in the other direction, researchers reasoned.
  • The results of the survey found that humble CEOs tended to foster a cooperative organizational culture, which promoted collaboration and information sharing in top management teams and also promoted better performance by other upper and middle managers.
  • The researchers believe that although the study was conducted in China, its findings about how humility cascades through organizational levels are applicable in other countries. The researchers plan to study the effects of CEO humility in US companies next.