When it comes to the best leaders, a slice of humble pie might be just what the CEO ordered, as research from a leading Australian university shows that humility is a critical leadership trait for cultivating cohesive, high-performing teams.
It’s an interesting finding – especially given that leaders are more commonly aligned with the characteristics of confidence, charisma, and influence.
But in a post-Covid era, where remote work is increasingly likely, understanding the nuances of good leadership is more important than ever, researchers believe.
Demonstrating humility creates positive teams
Evaluating 120 work teams comprising 495 team members, experts from the University of South Australia in Adelaide found that leaders who demonstrate humility – through self-awareness, praising others’ strengths and contributions, and being open to feedback – can enhance positive team experiences while mitigating negative influences.
This process enables the creation of stronger and more productive teams.
Lead researcher, Dr Chad Chiu from the university’s Centre for Workplace Excellence, said leader humility is all about understanding interpersonal relationships and creating positive team norms.
“Most people understand the benefit of working in a ‘good’ team; the people get along, they communicate well and they acknowledge each other’s skills and contribution.
Good leaders ease team negativity towards peers
“But not all interactions among members are so positive and good leaders need to be able to navigate these,” Dr Chiu stated.
He explained that many teams actually have ‘negative ties’, where people see their peers as hindrances to getting the job done or may even dislike each other. Until now, however, understanding how leaders can mitigate these negative associations has been unclear.
“Our research shows that one strategy for leaders to simultaneously enhance goodwill and trust while reducing any negative relationships in their teams, is to express their humility,” Dr Chiu said.
“Humility is characterised by high self-awareness, showing an appreciation of others, and modelling a culture of learning.
Humble leaders realise that they are not infallible
In humble leaders, this is demonstrated through open communications, listening well, praising a job well done, valuing the skills of each team member, and realising that they as leaders are not infallible.”
According to the study, many of these skills can be taught. But it’s also important for senior managers to initiate a top-down impact on middle managers’ humility, awareness and adoption.
Curiously, the research showed that increased team performance is affected more by lowering team negativity, than by boosting positivity.
“Team performance hinges more on a leader’s ability to diminish negativity within the team, than their ability to boost friendship and social connections,” Dr Chiu said.