The Unlikely Leader Behavior That Drives Team Performance

The Unlikely Leader Behavior That Drives Team Performance

Ask someone to describe the characteristics of an effective business leader and you are likely to receive an answer that includes self-confidence, dominance, toughness, decisiveness, fearlessness, drive, and accomplishment. In fact, many executive recruiters look for these characteristics when selecting leaders for all levels of their organizations. But do these behaviors make for a more effective leader? Do these behaviors positively impact team performance? A study conducted this past year suggests that an unlikely leader behavior may yield better team and organizational outcomes: that behavior is humility.

 Humility is a misunderstood trait often associated with weakness in the United States. Psychology, however, defines humility as an attribute that occurs in a social context, and it is characterized by a willingness to view one’s own strengths and weaknesses accurately and to judge others’ strengths and shortcomings accurately as well. Being humble also means being teachable and open to growth experiences.[i]

 A leader who demonstrates humility will draw focus to others’ strengths, encourage others to share their perspectives, possess a willingness to acknowledge his/her own limitations, and support others’ growth and achievement. Furthermore, a humble leader will inspire follower loyalty and commitment,[ii] reinforce job satisfaction, work engagement, and employee retention,[iii] and counter the negative effects of leader narcissism, leading to more positive follower outcomes.[iv]

A non-humble or authoritarian leader, in contrast, will avoid all appearances of being weak. He/she will be over-confident and self-righteous, will not publicly acknowledge mistakes, and will seek personal status above the status of his/her team. These behaviors are contagious and will create teams of competitive individuals vying for individual status instead of focusing on achieving the goals of the team.[v] How does this leader behavior impact team performance?

 Last year, a study examining the effects of leader humility on team performance was conducted by Bradley Owens and David Hekman.[vi] Using data from 607 subjects organized into 161 teams, this study induced humility in a laboratory setting, in a longitudinal lab study across six weeks, and in a field study completed in a health services context. Participants in all three studies completed tasks and then rated the humility of their leaders, their teams, or both. The results of this research showed that leaders’ humble behaviors were contagious and that leaders modeling humility inspired team members to be humble as well. In the end, the teams led by the humble leader performed better on all their respective tasks. It is tempting to view these results as representing a best-case scenario that can only exist in rare settings; but the results of each of the three studies augmented one another to demonstrate that these results are consistent across different types of settings and across different spans of time.

Humble leaders, then, contribute to better team performance. This is not a surprise, but how do they do this? Previous research on leadership identified that leaders influence team member social behaviors by modelling the very social behaviors they hope to instill.[vii] Because followers often imitate their leader’s behaviors, a humble leader is more likely to develop humble followers. Thus, when leaders admit their own limitations and mistakes, allow themselves to be taught rather than do most of the teaching, and draw attention to others’ contributions and strengths, they reinforce a cooperative, others-oriented norm of team interaction and they emphasize the value of collective striving over personal status seeking. Furthermore, the norm of reciprocity infers that when a person receives positive feedback about her strengths or when she is being listened to, she would be more likely to respond in the same way.[viii]

While similar concepts, humility differs from transformational leadership. The main difference between the two is that humility can be imitated by followers, whereas critical dimensions of transformational leadership such as idealized influence, inspirational motivation, and intellectual stimulation cannot. Leader humility’s main influence is through the spread of the behaviors themselves, as teams will emulate the leader’s cooperative behaviors and place the goal of the group over self-promotion. Transformational leadership, however, succeeds most when a new compelling vision is needed, or when “extreme challenge, stress, and uncertainty” arise.[ix] Leader humility, in contrast, may be more beneficial to team effectiveness during everyday challenges when the team is faced with moderate amounts of challenge, stress, pressure, or threat.

The good news for leaders and organizations is that humble behaviors can be developed through training and practice. In addition, humility can be used as a selection criteria for hiring leaders or employees at any level within the organization. Developing humble leaders begins with organizations adopting the value of humility and exhibiting that value within their corporate culture. Leaders should focus on cooperative rather than competitive interactions with their team members. Leaders should also emphasize the performance of the team over and above his/her own performance. In adopting the value of humility, companies will be able to attract and retain humble leaders. Furthermore, overall employee retention will improve because technically savvy leaders who are not great with people will no longer drive the best employees away.


[i] Owens, B. P., Johnson, M. J., & Mitchell, T. R. (2013). Expressed humility in organizations: Implications for performance, teams, and leadership. Organization Science, 24: 1517–1538.

[ii] Basford, T. E., Offermann, L. R., & Behrend, T. S. (2014). Please accept my sincerest apologies: Examining follower reactions to leader apology. Journal of Business Ethics, 119: 99–117.

[iii] Owens, B. P., Johnson, M. J., & Mitchell, T. R. (2013). Expressed humility in organizations: Implications for performance, teams, and leadership. Organization Science, 24: 1517–1538.

[iv] Owens, B. P., Wallace, A., & Waldman, D. A. (2015). Leader narcissism and follower outcomes: The counter- balancing effect of leader humility. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100: 1203–1213.

[v] Beersma, B., Homan, A. C., Van Kleef, G. A., & de Dreu, C. K. W. (2013). Outcome interdependence shapes the effects of prevention focus on team processes and performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 121: 194–203.
Owens, B. P., & Hekman, D. (2012). Modeling how to grow: An inductive examination of humble leader behaviors, contingencies, and outcomes. Academy of Management Journal, 5: 787–818.

[vi] Owens, B.P., & Hekman, D.R. (2016). How does leader humility influence team performance? Exploring the mechanisms of contagion and collective promotion focus. Academy of Management Journal, 59(3), 1088-1111. doi:10.5465/amj.2013.0660

[vii] Dragoni, L. (2005). Understanding the emergence of state goal orientation in organizational work groups: The role of leadership and multilevel climate perceptions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90: 1084–1095.
Naumann, S. E., & Ehrhart, M. G. (2005). A unit-level perspective on organizational citizenship behavior. In D. L. Turnipseed (Ed.), Handbook of organizational citizenship behavior: 143–156. New York, NY: Nova.

[viii] Cialdini, R. B., Vincent, J. E., Lewis, S. K., Catalan, J., Wheeler, D., & Darby, B. L. (1975). Reciprocal concessions procedure for inducing compliance: The door-in-the-face technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31: 206–215.

[ix] Bass, B. M., & Avolio, B. J. (1993). Transformational leadership and organizational culture. Public Administration Quarterly, 17: 112–121.