What it takes to succeed as a leader in the new normal

Thursday 25th February 2021 Justin Cleveland

2020 brought many surprises and challenges for those in leadership. Rapid changes due to circumstances beyond their control tested the abilities of even the most experienced executive.

Turns out, these challenges, and the lessons they taught, may have been just what the doctor ordered.

New research from the University of South Australia shows that humility is a critical leadership trait for chief executives to cultivate a cohesive, high-performing team.

“Most people understand the benefit of working in a ‘good’ team – the people get along, they communicate well, and they acknowledge each other’s skills and contribution – but not all interactions among members are so positive, and good leaders need to be able to navigate these,” says Dr Chad Chiu of the UniSA Centre for Workplace Excellence. He says that leader humility enables executives to understand interpersonal dynamics and create positive team norms.

“Many teams actually have ‘negative ties,” where people see their peers as hindrances to getting the job done or may even dislike each other. Until now, understanding how leaders can mitigate these negative associations has been unclear.

“Our research shows that one strategy for leaders to simultaneously enhance goodwill and trust while reducing any negative relationships in their team, is to express their humility,” says Chiu.

Chiu’s study, which was conducted in partnership with the State University of New York and Brigham Young University, evaluated 120 work teams with nearly 500 members. It ultimately found that leaders who demonstrate humility through self-awareness, praising others’ strengths and contributions, and being open to feedback, can enhance positive team experiences while mitigating negative influences.

In a way, it is a twist on the old adage of treating others as you would like to be treated. “Humility is characterised by high self-awareness, showing an appreciation of others, and modelling a culture of learning. In humble leaders, this is demonstrated through open communications, listening well, praising a job well-done, valuing the skills of each team member, and realising that they as leaders are not infallible.”

Leadership skills are not an inherent trait. If they were, many business schools and leadership training programs would be long out of business. Humility, however, is something that grows from being aware of your impact on others. “Many of these skills can be taught,” says Chiu. “But it’s also important for senior managers to initiate a top-down impact on middle managers’ humility awareness and adoption.”

Work-life balance and fostering friendships in the office

Chiu’s research finds that an increased team performance comes more from removing negativity amongst colleagues than with boosting positivity. Essentially, the best performance comes not from positives and rewards but from removing negatives.

“This is because teams with fewer negative ties, for example, extreme competitiveness or narcissism are more likely to collaborate, communicate, and support each other to complete team tasks. And while most teams usually have fewer negative ties, these act as ‘social debts’ and cannot be easily counterbalanced by positive relationships.”

What does humility look like

There are a few hallmarks of a humble leader and they generally revolve around humanising both yourself and your workforce. Chiu says we need to acknowledge personal limitations as well as publicly praise others for their strengths and contributions.

Humble leaders also recognise their own strengths and limitations by showing a high willingness to learn from others and, when necessary, step aside and let others take the lead.

Ultimately, Chiu says that team leaders must understand the true impact of humility as it can have a flow-on effect to your wider organisation’s wellbeing and productivity. “Embrace it and you will thrive.”

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