A ‘contagious’ quality distinguishes great leaders from the rest

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It’s catching.
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Joe Raedle / Staff / Getty Images

In a recent article for The Washington Post, Ashley Merryman highlights the benefits of humility, and especially of humble leadership.

One piece of research Merryman cites is especially intriguing. It suggests not only that a leader’s humility facilitates better team performance, but also that this happens partly because the leader’s humility trickles down to the rest of the team.

The 2015 paper, by Bradley P. Owens at Brigham Young University and David R. Hekman at the University of Colorado, featured three studies, the last of which is a field experiment. That means the researchers observed and measured what was already happening at a real-life company.

The researchers use a three-part definition of humility in a leader:

1. “Drawing attention to others’ strengths”

2. “Being open to others’ ideas and perspectives”

3. “Being willing to acknowledge personal limits”

All of these behaviors, they say, are ways of “transcending the self.”

Similarly, collective (group) humility implies that team members “acknowledge and appreciate each other’s strengths, listen to each other’s feedback and new ideas with openness, and acknowledge mistakes and handle them constructively.”

For the field experiment, the researchers looked at teams of employees at a health-services company. They asked employees to fill out surveys about their leader’s humility, responding to prompts such as, “The leader admits it when he or she doesn’t know how to do something” and “The leader often compliments others on their strengths.”

About one month later, employees filled out another survey, this one about collective humility, responding to similar prompts that referred to the group members. They also completed a survey that measured the team’s collective “promotion focus,” or a focus on continual improvement, advancement, and accomplishment.

At the same time, leaders were asked to rate their team’s performance.

Sure enough, the researchers found a causal relationship between a leader’s humility and their team’s performance that works like this: A leader’s humility spreads to the team members, causing the team members to display a promotion focus, which in turn improves team performance.

The researchers say their findings are evidence of the “contagious nature of humility.” And given that the spread of humility led to better team performance, the researchers write: “Far from being a sign of weak-willed, stooped-shouldered meekness … humility keeps individuals in a state of continual adaptation.”

Interestingly, research conducted by leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman found that leaders who underestimate their own competence – which could be partly caused by humility – are the most effective and have the most engaged employees.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the Owen and Hekman’s findings is that leaders can’t always expect others to exhibit the positive traits they themselves don’t. The researchers write: “Individuals must act virtuously if they want virtue to spread.”