Humble leaders are ‘hypocrites’

Humble leaders are ‘hypocrites’

2 minute read

Conventional wisdom suggests that leader humility, manifested in displays of humble and sympathetic behaviour, is not only perceived positively by their employees (followers), but increases their voice, job engagement, creativity and, ultimately, overall team performance.

ANU College of Business and Economics (CBE) Professors George Chen and Lin Cui, alumnus Darren K. Bharanitharan, and colleagues from the University of Sydney and Edith Cowan University challenge this widely held belief, arguing that it oversimplifies a far more complicated dynamic.  

In particular, they contend that, when leader humility is recognised but attributed to impression management, it will be negatively received by followers, and even have the potential to be interpreted as hypocritical. 

Using an experimental setting, the team finds support for their hypothesis. Moreover, they document an interaction between leader humility and impression management, with employees perceiving leaders as hypocritical in cases where they believe impression management to be the catalyst for leaders’ displays of humility. 

In addition to identifying conditions that can undermine the otherwise positive influence of humility, the team emphasises the importance of congruence in leaders’ values, behaviours and the perceptual lenses through which followers interpret both.

“Rather than suggest that leader humility is a bad form of leadership that should be avoided, we show how to harness the positive effects of leader humility most effectively while simultaneously understanding the potential ways that leader's humble behaviours can also lead to negative outcomes through perceived hypocrisy,” they note. 

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