Hail to the ‘Humble’ Manager

Don’t sell humility short, business experts say

By Brian O'Connell May 18, 2021
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​Often, the best workplace managers are described as confident, charismatic and highly persuasive.

Yet a new study points out that humility is also a critical leadership trait for cultivating high-performing employees.

The study from the University of South Australia Centre for Workplace Excellence tracked 120 workplace teams comprising 495 team members. Researchers concluded that "leaders who demonstrate humility—through self-awareness, praising others' strengths and contributions, and being open to feedback"—can achieve positive workplace outcomes and curb negative influences.

Humility is characterized by having high self-awareness, showing an appreciation of others and emphasizing 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," said Chad Chiu, Ph.D., lead researcher for the study.

Making Humble Work

Are the South Australia Centre researchers onto something? Business management experts think so.

"Research proves humble leadership works," said Melody Wilding, an executive coach who teaches graduate-level human behavior and psychology at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in New York City. "Not only are self-aware leaders more effective, but they also impact the bottom line. Companies with self-aware leaders tend to have stronger financial performance. High trust also translates into better engagement. High-trust leaders tend to create teams that report 75 percent less stress, 50 percent higher productivity and 40 percent less burnout, according to Harvard Business Review."

Among myriad other changes, the pandemic and the shift to remote work highlighted the need for humble behavior and humility in leadership.

"In an age of disconnection, higher workloads and rising burnout, it's essential we have leaders who display empathy and have a pulse on team morale," Wilding said. "We also need leaders at the helm who admit they don't have all the answers and they sometimes make mistakes."

Antonia Hock is global head of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center, a global business consulting firm located in Washington, D.C. For managers seeking a clear path to humility, Hock advises they ask themselves these questions after meetings, one-on-ones or group e-mails:

1. Did I ask for feedback, ideas and opinions because I was really engaged, or just as a token way to close?

2. Were the concepts, ideas or processes that I presented first vetted with employees at various levels? "Leaders miss on this one all the time," Hock said. "No one likes to be asked to buy into directives that they had no voice in forming."

3. Did you acknowledge the role that others played in creating, designing or driving your ideas or thoughts? "Great leadership does not exist in a vacuum, so actively [point out] who advised you, inspired you or contributed," she added. "If you don't have anyone in this category, that's a problem."

Can Managers Learn Humility?

Among workplace experts, there seems to be agreement that humility can be learned, but with a few caveats.

"Humility can definitely be taught to managers, but being self-aware is key," said Todd Mosetter, vice president of content development at Building Champions, an executive coaching firm located in Lake Oswego, Ore. "Getting feedback from your peers and outsiders can help you see what you're missing."

That's just for starters. There are other steps managers can take to develop humility at work.

Stay in balance. Another way to define humility is "not thinking too much or too little of yourself."

"Too much, and you come across as arrogant and lose [your] curiosity. Too little, and you can keep fear and doubt from allowing you to leverage your gifts and opportunities," Mosetter said. "Great leaders find that sweet spot between both sides and are able to confidently leverage their gifts while staying curious and always looking for ways to grow and improve."

Commit to your employees. Andrew Carnegie, one of the United States' most successful businessmen, made it a point to remember all his employees' names. "The simple act of remembering names was enough to convince him that every employee had an important part to play in his company," said Jim Pendergast, senior vice president at AltLINE Sobanco, a Birmingham, Ala.-based financial services company geared to small and mid-size businesses.

Admit your mistakes. Managers who make amends on the job aren't common, but maybe they should be.

"Businesses thrive on the humility of their leaders," Pendergast said. "Both employees and clients look for [leaders who] are confident in their actions but willing to admit mistakes and make concessions when they're wrong. The people who are most willing to learn from both their mistakes and those they work with and for will rise to the top before anyone else."

Make a fresh outlook a priority. "When our management team launches a recruitment drive, we make it clear to candidates from the outset which gaps exist in our existing organization," said Craig Brown, chief marketing manager at Dora Wirth (Languages) Limited, a life sciences company in London. "This encourages new starters to express themselves and come up with solutions for us. Acting with humility means that we see fresh expertise not as a threat but as an opportunity to grow."

Turn theory into execution. Can a manager blend the traditional traits of a confident boss with humble traits that appeal to today's workforce? Yes—and the answer often lies in doing the work alongside your team members.

"A great example of a leader who did this during the pandemic is the CEO and founder of Hint Water, Kara Goldin," said Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, an online business services company in Calabasas, Calif. "Goldin stocked shelves of the company's product at retail storefronts alongside her employees. She didn't need to do it, but she was able to create a deeper understanding of her market because she was out on the front lines seeing how customers shop and essentially conducting market research. An empathetic leader knows when team members need the help and rolls up their sleeves to get to work alongside their team."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2004).

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