The case for modest management

Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

Leaders, if you want the best out of your teams, slices of humble pie might be just what you need to be serving – yourselves.

A new study released by the University of South Australia (UniSA) shows that humility is a critical leadership trait for cultivating cohesive, high performing teams. The research was conducted in partnership with the State University of New York and Brigham Young University, both in the US.

Think of effective leaders and you tend to lean towards such characteristics as confidence, charisma, and influence – the sorts of qualities that play well in a room full of people. But in a post-COVID era where remote work is increasingly likely, leadership is a much more nuanced game.

“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 – but not all interactions among members are so positive, and good leaders need to be able to navigate these,” says lead researcher Chad Chiu, from UniSA’s Centre for Workplace Excellence.

“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, understanding how leaders can mitigate these negative associations has been unclear.”

Researchers surveyed 120 work teams comprising 495 individual members and 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. As a result they created stronger, more productive teams.

Fast facts: humble leadership

1. Acknowledge personal limitations

2. Publicly praise others for their strengths and contributions

3. Show a high willingness to learn from others

4. When necessary, step down and let followers to take the lead

5. Express empathy at work.

The study also 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,” Chiu says.

“This is because teams with fewer negative ties, for example extreme competitiveness or narcissism, are more likely to collaborate, communicate and support each other to complete team tasks. And while most teams usually have fewer negative ties, these act as ‘social debts’ and cannot be easily counterbalanced by positive relationships.

“Team leaders must understand the true impact of humility as it can have a huge impact on the well-being and productivity of their team. Embrace it and you will thrive.”

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