Management thinkers often stress the importance of humility as a key leadership characteristic, one that has a powerful impact on employee engagement and business performance. But how can humility be defined and measured and what levers can be used to promulgate it?
According to Professor Gary Greguras from the Singapore Management University (SMU) Lee Kong Chian School of Business, humility suffers from a lack of conceptualisation, thus making it difficult to study. “For example, humility has been used synonymously with virtue, forgiveness, honesty, modesty, empathy, low self-esteem and integrity. In addition to this lack of clarity, humility also has been defined at times as a personality trait, a value, an orientation or a virtue,” he notes.
Humility, a trait previously long discarded by many in the West, has been an essential part of Asian culture for thousands of years, taught in schools, contained in the writings of Confucius, and deep rooted in society.
While there have been recent efforts to define leadership humility in a Western context, Professor Greguras’ research provides a valuable Asian perspective. “Many popular books on leadership mention humility and it is a topic that often arises in conversations about effective leadership. In addition, many people in Singapore, including my students, would often note how much more important leader humility is in Asia than in the West," he says in an article in Research@SMU.
Greguras collaborated with SMU colleague Assistant Professor Michael Bashshur and Senior Research Associate Michael Daniels from the Human Capital Leadership Institute in Singapore to define leader humility in Singapore and to examine its impact on employee attitudes, job performance and the quality of relationships employees have with their bosses.
The process was not without its challenges. “Our respondents were all familiar with the term humility, but often struggled to articulate what it represents,” says Professor Greguras.
To conceptualise humility, the team carried out extensive interviews and surveys with people from different managerial levels, asking open-ended questions such as "What behaviours do you associate with humble leaders?" and "Does leader humility mean the same thing to Singaporeans as it does to non-Singaporeans.
As a result the team learnt that leader humility, as it was perceived in Singapore, consisted of the following nine dimensions:
Having an accurate view of self
Recognising followers’ strengths and achievements
Leading by example
Working together for the collective good
Expressing empathy and being approachable
Showing mutual respect and fairness
And mentoring and coaching.
Greguras is optimistic that these findings will eventually allow the team to develop programs to increase leader humility. "One intervention could be having multiple sources (peers, subordinates, supervisors) evaluate the target on the nine humility dimensions. The target could then compare self-ratings to other ratings, and discrepancies may be highlighted. These discrepancies often increase self-awareness and may lead to behavioural change, which in this case, may result in increases in leader humility," he explains.
Not everyone responded equally to leaders who are humble. One factor that affected their responses was power distance. Power distance shapes an individual’s views of how people on different rungs of power should interact. Individuals who are higher on power distance orientation believe that authority figures should be respected and deferred to, while individuals who are lower on power distance orientation value a more open and equal relationship between bosses and subordinates. The researchers also observed that individuals who were more neurotic (a personality trait characterised by anxiety, fear and worry) did not respond as favourably to a humble leader.
Despite these anomalies, and the challenge of measuring leader humility, encouraging and increasing humility is clearly important. According to Greguras:
“This is important because our research showed that leader humility relates to a host of positive employee outcomes, including increased job satisfaction, increased organisational commitment, higher quality leader-member relationships, increased job performance and increased organisational citizenship behaviours.”
Read the full article in Research@SMU