Is this the secret of smart leadership?

Business Essentials

By David Robson

It’s more than two millennia since the philosopher Socrates argued that humility is the greatest of all virtues. His timeless observation was that the wisest people are the first to admit how little they really know.

Science has been slow to catch up to this argument, but the last decade has offered a spate of new studies examining this trait and its effects on our thinking and reasoning. According to this research, people with greater humility are better learners, decision-makers and problem solvers. One study even found that someone’s humility could trump actual IQ in predicting their performance.

The latest findings suggest that the trait is especially important for leaders, with evidence that displays of humility can improve strategic thinking and boost the performance of colleagues across an organisation.

‘You need confidence to be humble’

The recent focus on humility is a refreshing shift in perspective after decades of interest into self-esteem and self-confidence, which were often considered to be cure-alls for many of the ills in our society.

High self-esteem and humility need not necessarily be at odds, of course. As Khalid Aziz, a leadership coach in the UK, points out, “you need confidence to be humble.”

Unfortunately, a lot of the writing about self-esteem and self-belief often neglected to consider need for humility alongside confidence. As Will Storr describes in his book ‘Selfie’, the self-esteem movement’ – promoted in the popular media and absorbed into educational policy – encouraged parents and teachers to provide unconditional positivity and optimism at the expense of any criticism or doubt. This hardly set the stage for healthy humility. And that oversight may have been to our great detriment.

Consider a 2013 paper published by Bradley Owens, an organisational psychologist at Brigham Young University, which examined the performance of 144 undergraduate students studying for a management course.

Figuring that each individual may not be very good at assessing their own humility, Owens asked the participants to rate each other on statements such as “This person actively seeks feedback, even if it is critical”, “This person admits it when they don’t know how to do something” and “This person acknowledges when others have more knowledge and skills than him – or herself”. He then tracked various measures of their performance over the course of the year.

The results were striking, with the students rated humblest achieving better grades than those who were considered to have more inflated opinions of themselves. Indeed, the humility ratings proved to be a better predictor of performance than measures of actual intelligence. Humility was particularly important for some of the less gifted students, almost completely compensating for their lack of natural intelligence and allowing them to perform as well as people with much higher IQ scores.

The reason for this advantage was apparent when Owens and his colleagues looked more carefully at the students’ trajectories across the term. The people with the greatest humility may not have started out the strongest, but by acknowledging the gaps in their knowledge or skillsets and then correcting them, they made the greatest improvements over the course. The less humble students were more likely to plateau. Overall, the humbler students were just more “teachable” than the less humble students, irrespective of their actual IQ.

Owens’ study helped establish the importance of humility as a distinct psychology trait, with later research confirming that intellectual humility can boost learning and many other measures of successful thinking. Elizabeth Krumrei Mancuso at Pepperdine University in California has found that humbler participants tend to show greater curiosity, and appear to be more willing to learn for the sake of learning. “These qualities may provide a greater openness to gaining new knowledge,” she says.

Krumrei Mancuso found that humbler people also score higher on tests of “cognitive reflection”, which measure your tendency to override your gut reactions and question your assumptions. That’s an important result, since more reflective thinkers tend to be less susceptible to cognitive bias and misinformation – suggesting that humility could have an important effect on people’s general decision making.

Of the world leaders today, Angela Merkel’s scientific background is sometimes credited with giving her greater intellectual humility – including the tendency to check her assumptions and to listen to others’ opinions before forming her own. And this is thought to have helped her to navigate the country through a series of crises during her 15 years as Germany’s Chancellor. In the past, Abraham Lincoln was famed for his humble attitude, and his capacity to acknowledge his own flaws and errors was thought to have improved his tactical decision making.

Avoiding groupthink

Besides these individual benefits, the recent research shows that a leader’s humility can also have important knock-on effects for their team members.

In a survey of more than 700 employees at a US health services provider, Owens found that humbler leaders cultivated greater work engagement and job satisfaction among their employees. Although Owens didn’t probe the reasons for the link in this study, his later research suggests that the leader’s humility improves the communication among team members. Not only does that give the employees the confidence to disagree with decisions, the fact that the leader is willing to admit their own limits should encourage the team members to admit their own flaws – all of which should create a more honest and constructive workplace.

Humbler CEOs encouraged greater collaboration and information sharing among the firm’s top management team

Amy Yi Ou at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University has found similar benefits in a study of 105 technology companies. Using surveys similar to Owens’, she found that humbler CEOs encouraged greater collaboration and information sharing among the firm’s top management team. The improved decision making resulted in greater overall profits.

Questioning questions

Despite these benefits, some leaders may still fear that expressing humility could undermine their authority. But the latest research on humility, published earlier this year, suggests that this need not be an issue, provided you go about it in the right way.

Irina Cojuharenco at the University of Surrey created different vignettes describing leaders’ behaviour, and asked participants to rate them on their perceived competence. Although blunt admissions of ignorance on an important issue – explicitly saying “I don’t know” – did harm the leaders’ ratings a bit, the effect was much less pronounced if they expressed their ignorance as a question requesting more information on the matter.

What’s more, the display of ignorance – by asking questions – only really made a difference if the leader’s competence was already in doubt. (For people who had already proven their knowledge – through a prestigious degree, for instance – it had little effect.) And even then, the participants’ overall trust of the leader remained unchanged. They seemed to appreciate the leaders’ genuine desire for more information and respected their humility, even if their belief in the leaders’ technical competence had been shaken.

Given these findings, Cojuharenco argues that leaders should be much readier to ask questions that may reveal their ignorance – rather than attempting to maintain the illusion of knowledge. “In the four studies we’ve conducted, we’ve never seen negative overall effects,” she says.

If you still doubt humility’s power, she suggests that you think of inspirational figures within your own life. The chances are, you’ll realise that they were the individuals who demonstrated the most humility, she says. And by following their lead, you can improve your own thinking and decision making.

David Robson is a science writer and author of ‘The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes’, which examines the psychology of our most common thinking errors and the ways to make wiser decisions.

* Published in print edition on 16 June 2020

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