Think of the best person for whom you ever worked. What did they do that worked so well for you? When did they screw up? What happened after they screwed up? Chances are you have had both good and bad “Boss” experiences.
Among the many business myths perpetuated in our work society is the one that claims, “Nice guys finish last”. Is this really true? Can the nice boss finish first? Among the many variables that could determine “nice” and “finishing first”, I focused on one important aspect of “nice” - leader humility. According to Owens & Heckman (2016), humility is the willingness to view oneself accurately, an appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions (Owens & Heckman, 2016) and tolerance for divergent views and opinions. Humility, it turns out, is contagious and trickles down to team members. So, does a nice boss actually demonstrate humility?
The Power of Humility
Research shows that when a boss openly acknowledges his or her own limitations, it sets the stage for growth and openness of others ideas and information. As a result, the humble boss is always learning and listening to feedback. Therefore, information exchange increases which supports cooperative and collective problem-solving ability. Because leadership is one of the most influential aspects of team performance, team members pick up on leader-modeled behavior. Research suggests that leader humility sparks group humility, which results in higher team achievement and growth vs. individual goal attainment. Speaking openly, freely exchanging ideas, and openness to receiving feedback lead to collective (team) achievement focus.
Microsoft: Case in Point
In my work experience, Microsoft is a good example of a company where leaders often demonstrate individual humility that results in collective humility. While working with hundreds of Microsoft leaders globally, it became clear that leaders were more humble than arrogant. Ideas are exchanged at a rapid-fire pace and feedback is instant and rarely taken personally. In this way, Microsoft leaders are able to quickly wrap their arms around technical challenges and quickly get to solution and implementation before their competition.
Bad Bosses Cost Fortunes
The opposite of the nice boss is the bad boss and I’m sure we’ve all had our share of bad bosses. Research shows that 14% of employees have experienced aggressive leader behavior (yelling, bullying, belittling, taking ideas and not giving credit) that cost companies $23.8 billion is the form of absenteeism, low productivity and voluntary turnover. Arrogance is one aspect one specific characteristic of a bad boss.
The Arrogant Boss: A Dangerous Breed
According Silverman et al., “arrogance is engaging in behaviors intended to exaggerate a person’s sense of superiority by disparaging others”. The arrogant boss is usually prone to narcissism and delusions of grandeur. The arrogant boss’ behavior leads to negative emotional group climate that results in cynicism. There are three common cynicism indicators, (1) a perception (among employees) that the boss and/or organization lacks integrity, (2) negative emotions toward the boss/organization and (3) general criticism toward the boss/organization. Cynicism can lead to contempt (for the boss), frustration, disappointment and hopelessness. These conditions lead to increased voluntary turnover.
The arrogant boss may have favorites, especially those who collude with the bad behavior. We have all, at one time or another, experienced bad boss behavior but, when it is consistent, it leads to emotional distress, which is contagious. The arrogant boss is unlikely to listen to or encourage alternate views or opinions and, as a result, team members start to shut down and withhold information. After all, what’s the point? If speaking up is too risky, then silence is the safe alternative.
If a humble boss stimulates higher performance levels and positive emotional climate, the question is, can it be learned? The short answer is “Yes”. Researchers Owens, Johnson & Mitchell developed the Expressed Humility Scale. It is a statistically valid and reliable measure of humility based on nine humility behaviors that can be developed.
In conclusion, it seems clear that a nice boss can, in fact, finish first. Using humility as an indicator of niceness shows us that the humble boss produces better performance results, shapes a healthy emotional climate and, has a better chance of shaping a culture of voice and reducing voluntary turnover.
What is your experience? Do you have more experience with the arrogant boss or the humble boss? Under which leadership type do you perform better? Is it possible for a bad boss to change?
Dansborough, Ashkanasy et al. (2009). What goes around comes around.
Silverman, Johnson et al. (2012). Arrogance: A formula for leadership failure
Owens & Hekman. (2016). How does leader humility influence team performance?
Owens, Johnson & Mitchell. (2013). Expressed Humility in Organizations:
Implications for performance, teams and leadership.
 Owens, Johnson & Mitchell (2013)
 Cefkin, M. (2010) Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter
 Arrogance: A Formula for Leadership Failure