A humble leader in an expected low power distance environment inspired shared leadership, exchange of ideas and creativity. In teams with high power distance, leader humility was associated with lower levels of psychological safety.
There is a popular belief in the corporate circuit that humility is a virtue that keeps leaders ahead of the races. There is ample evidence in published research work that proves that humility is a characteristic that leaders need to be effective. But history has paved way for successful leaders who would not be considered the most humble when judged objectively. Can there be a better example than Steve Jobs? Behind all the creative and innovative, there was a leader who was a well-known egoist, too crass, boastful and ruthless at times. Effective and successful? Definitely. Humble? Maybe not.
It is not exactly a linear equation which says success increases as humility does. It comes down to which leadership characteristics are effective in which cultural setup. There are certain cultures, where hiring “narcissistic CEOs” is actually good for the business. This is because that is what will work in today’s reality of rising narcissism levels, according to the author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.
A group of academicians hypothesized the correlation between a leader’s humility and her capability to instill the feeling of shared leadership in their teams. The research paper is titled “Initiating and Utilizing Shared Leadership in Teams: The Role of Leader Humility, Team Proactive Personality and Team Performance Capability” and is authored by Chia-Yen (Chad) Chiu, Bradley P. Owens, and Paul E. Tesluk. The research paper also theorized the concept of power distance and its intriguing relationship with humility. In this article, we look at the impact of power distance on shared leadership, and how the power distance determines the success of your humility.
The concept that is Power Distance
The higher in the hierarchy an individual, the more power he holds. In every organization, there is an acceptable threshold of inequality of power. Employees lower in the hierarchical accept and expect an unequal power distribution between them and their team leaders. They even find it legitimate. This is what power distance is. “The degree to which people consider the unequal distribution of power in a team acceptable and legitimate,” the researchers define power distance in their Harvard Business Review article. Power distance varies across workplaces and even teams.
Two different teams within the same company may have contrasting thresholds of power distribution inequality. Members of Team A may find it legitimate for their leader to have much more power than them; while it might be unacceptable to people of Team B and they may expect more of equality in the way things are run. These acceptable thresholds determine the acceptable characteristics within a team and define what leadership traits will actually be effective. A participative leader can be anticipated to do well in Team B, while an authoritative figurehead could be more effective in Team A.
For a leader, it is essential to be aware of what the team expects from them, identify the benchmark, and balance between humility and authority.
About the study
It was tested by the researchers on 354 individual members and 72 work teams from 11 companies in China over a period of 6 months. Web-based surveys were used to ask members to rate their leaders’ “expressed humility”, and their own “power distance” value. A set of statements were used to determine expressed humility and power distance. People’s creativity and psychological safety were measured after a period of 3 months, to test the effectiveness of teams and the role of humility in the same.
- The correlation between power distance and humility
The study found out that “leader humility was most strongly related to ‘shared leadership’ when teams had members with high levels of proactive personality.” This essentially means that when employees who show initiative and have a tendency to show ownership, humble leaders inspired ‘shared leadership’ more in their teams. These teams were found to be more effective. The study also found that proactive members thrived more under a “humble and power-reducing leader.”
“The research interestingly found out, that humility was not only unsuccessful in teams with high power distance, but it had a negative impact. “In teams with high power distance, leader humility was associated with lower levels of psychological safety,” say the researchers.
People didn’t feel psychologically safe to say what they felt, express their views, and take any risks in environments where leaders were humble but were expected to be dominant. However, humility went a far way in teams with low power distance. A humble leader in an expected low power distance environment inspired shared leadership, exchange of ideas and creativity.
The study also found that when the power distance between team members and the team head is high, members expect the leader to take charge and give strong direction. But when power distance is low, members expect more humility. Thus, the power distance determines the degree of humility one should exert in order to be effective at leading and be successful in perpetuating shared leadership. For leaders, it thus becomes important to balance the degree of humility against the power distance between them and their team members.
- What does it mean to leaders?
This research challenges the popular notions that humility inspires effectiveness. This research argues that the effectiveness of humility depends on how the team members perceive the power distance between them and the leader. For a leader then, it becomes essential to be aware of what the team expects from them – what is the level of power distance does her team consider legitimate and acceptable. The leader then has to operate within that threshold and exercise a balance of humility and authority. Because if the research is to go by, the virtue of humility alone will not help them in succeeding as leaders and inspiring shared leadership.