Humility is a key to high performance and effective leadership

September 19, 2012

Humility may be a virtue. It’s also a competitive advantage.

According to a study from the University of Washington Foster School of Business, humble people are more likely to be high performers in individual and team settings. They also tend to make the most effective leaders.

“Humility is an important component of effective leadership in modern organizations,” says co-author Michael Johnson, an associate professor of management at the Foster School. “Humble leaders foster learning-oriented teams and engage employees. They also optimize job satisfaction and employee retention.”

Johnson collaborated with lead author Bradley Owens, a former doctoral student now at the University of Buffalo, and Terry Mitchell, a professor of management at Foster.

The research team defined humility as a three-part personality trait consisting of an accurate view of the self, teachability, and appreciation of others’ strengths.

Individual performance

In a first study, teams of students and employees assessed each other’s humility. This produced a high degree of consensus, indicating accuracy. Once a humility benchmark was set for each individual, the researchers were able to measure the affect of humility on various kinds of performance.

What emerged was a surprisingly strong indicator of who would excel, and who would improve over time. “Two of the best predictors of performance—both academic and on the job—are intelligence and conscientiousness,” Johnson says. “We found that humility predicted performance better than both.”

This first study revealed one other bonus feature of humility: it can compensate for lower levels of intelligence.

Effective leadership

In a second study, employees rated their supervisors on humility and answered questions about their own job engagement and satisfaction. Those who rated their managers as more humble reported feeling more engaged and less likely to leave the organization.

“A lot of companies are finding that the best leaders are not necessarily the ones you read about in the media or who have larger-than-life personalities,” Johnson says. “They’re the people who are behind the scenes, guiding their employees and letting them shine.

“Our study suggests that a ‘quieter’ leadership approach—listening, being transparent, being aware of limitations, and appreciating follower strengths and contributions—is an effective way to engage employees.”

Age of ego

Johnson adds that humility may be less germane to the American ethos, which tends to be more individualistic than the collectivistic societies of Asia, northern Europe, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

“That doesn’t mean that individualistic cultures are necessarily less humble,” he says. “But if you pair individualism with narcissism and a lack of humility, that’s a dangerous mix.”

He warns that narcissism is on the rise in this age of Facebook and Twitter. The media are rife with self-admiration. Cartoonish shows of me-first bombast (see Donald Trump’s workplace blood sport, “The Apprentice”) threaten to become cultural touchstones.

In the real real world, as the Foster study demonstrates, genuine humility is, ironically enough, the best way to get ahead.

Of course, not everyone is born humble. Nature and—especially in current times—nurture can work against it. But Johnson says that humility, like other virtues, can be developed.

“Patience is a virtue. And some people are naturally more patient. But we can all work to become more patient,” Johnson says. “Humility is the same way. If we focus on appreciating the strengths of others, focus on being teachable, having an accurate view of ourselves, we can actually become more humble people.”

And that might just make us more effective at school, at play, and in the workplace.

“Humility in Organizations: Implications for Performance, Teams, and Leadership,” is forthcoming in Organization Science.