Insights at UBC Sauder

When Leaders Show Humility, Workers Are Happier: Study

Posted 2020-04-07

Humility is a trait that is not always celebrated among business leaders — but a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business shows that leaders looking to succeed may want to cut back on the boasting to create happier and healthier workspaces.

In fact, the research shows that when leaders do things like ask for feedback, admit their failings, demonstrate their own fallibility or give others credit where it’s due, their employees feel less vulnerable, and more comfortable expressing their true selves.

For the study, titled Humility breeds authenticity: How authentic leader humility shapes follower vulnerability and felt authenticity, participants answered questions about the behaviours of their leaders, and were also asked to recall specific moments when their bosses seemed especially humble. The employees also described moments when they felt particularly vulnerable at work.

In another experiment, participants reacted to a story involving a chain restaurant that succeeds because a new apartment complex goes up nearby, and wins a prestigious corporate award.

In one version, the general manager accepts the award by extoling his own virtues, and all the things he did to achieve the success; in another, he credits the employees and expresses his desire to keep improving. The researchers then manipulated each version, making the boss either authentic or inauthentic in his approach, and asking participants how vulnerable they would feel working for him.

According to study co-author and UBC Sauder School of Business Assistant Professor Michael Daniels, they found that when leaders behave more humbly, their followers feel less vulnerable and more authentic in the workplace — which can in turn lead to a happier and healthier work environment.

“The reason people feel vulnerable around leaders is because those leaders have power over them. Leaders who are lacking humility want everyone to be just like them, and because they can fire us or at least make our jobs really stressful and difficult, we tend to oblige,” says Daniels.

Leaders who express more humility, on the other hand, give away some of that power. “They acknowledge that they're not gods, that they’re fallible and they're human. They acknowledge that subordinates often have really good ideas and they're not threatened by that fact,” he says. “As a result, employees feel they can be themselves. And in general, people feel more comfortable and happier at work when they can be themselves.”

But before employers run out and start acting humble, there’s a catch: that expression of humility has to be genuine, or at least seem genuine, or it doesn’t have the same effect. In other words, humble-bragging isn’t going to cut it.

“There are people who fake their humility for other purposes, and employees look to their leaders and try to evaluate their motives,” says Daniels.

“As a leader, you can't just go into to an organization knowing that humility is something that will make your employees happy and maybe work harder for you, and try to act humble. It has to be authentic.”

It can also help companies when times are bad. The study cites a real-life situation in Bangalore where a tech start-up ran out of funds and the founder announced she would have to let the staff go. Instead, they offered to work for 50 percent less; the company recovered and later sold for $14 million. The employees said they supported their leader because she had shown authentic humility.

“Expressing some humility when times are bad says to others, ‘I’m in this for the long haul, I’m willing to grow, and I’m addressing these things head-on.’ That’s what people with humility do,” says Daniels. “And people respond pretty well to them.”

Past studies have looked at authenticity in the workplace as an individual difference — how some people bring photos of their families and chat about their personal lives, while others are more private. But this study is one of the first of its kind to look at the role leaders play in whether or not people can bring their true selves to work.

So, can genuine humility be learned? Daniels says it can, and is currently working on a study that shows leaders who learn self-compassion tend to act with more humility. Learning to express gratitude also helps.

“You can say, ‘Every day, I want everyone in the organization to write down three things they’re thankful for,’” Daniels explains. “Even something as small as that can increase the humility of both managers and their employees.”