A natural self-assuredness and eagerness to brag made Michael Scott, the awkward manager played by Steve Carrell in the hit 2000s comedy The Office, a deliciously ridiculous character.
You could argue, however, that his bossly flourishes and grandiose speeches were not so different from those of celebrated CEOs, like Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg. So why is he seen as a joke rather than effective?
The difference, of course, is context. When you lead a tiny team in a branch office, not a global powerhouse, your employees experience you differently.
In a recent study, Gijs van Houwelingen, a lecturer of management at Leiden University in the Netherlands, looked at how employees’ social relationship with their boss influenced the way they responded to different types of motivational messages. Aspirational language was motivating when people also felt psychologically distant from their leader, he found. When a manager was perceived as “close,” it was just the opposite: Their teams weren’t motivated by lofty speeches, and were more inspired by messages that featured concrete goals.
Now, a new study offers a similar finding: A leader seen as distant and more powerful is expected to be confident and unashamed, but one who is close and accessible is expected to be humble. What’s more, employees are inspired to be more creative when they’re working with a humble manager.
When a team leader acts like one of the gang, employees are more likely to share more information and therefore work more collaboratively, says the study’s lead author, Jia Hu, a professor of management at Ohio State University.
“Humble leaders were those who gave employees a chance to speak up and have a voice in the decision-making process and who also acknowledged their own limitations,” Hu said in a news release.
“One practical implication for managers is that they need to understand what their team members expect and value from them,” she added.
To reach these findings, which were published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers surveyed teams and team leaders in 11 tech companies in a major Chinese city. Over the course of six months, they returned three times, speaking to more than 350 employees in total.
The team members were asked to rate their leader’s level of humility, which they did by ranking how much they agreed with statements like, “Our team leader is open to the advice of others.” They also rated how chummy they felt with a manager, and how much data they shared with each other. At the end of the study, their managers were asked to rate the teams’ level of creativity.
Both Hu’s and van Houwelingen’s studies demonstrate truths we are already aware of, even if we don’t analyze them in academic terms. Hu’s paper also suggests however, that the new set of grounded, empathetic leaders emerging in the Silicon Valley like Microsoft’s Satya Nadella or Google’s Sundar Pichai—who are often perceived as humble in media accounts—should consider establishing some limits to their modesty.