Study: There’s real value in humility



A recent study from Ohio State University suggests that leaders who admit and learn from their mistakes may be more effective than those who try to appear perfect.

The study, which consisted of four related research projects, found that when leaders reflect on their errors, they display more humility, which is a trait associated with effective management. Additionally, the study found that teams may perform better when their leaders learn from their missteps under certain conditions.

“Everyone makes mistakes—even the best leaders inevitably do—but leaders are often expected to act dominant, confident, and be the people fixing mistakes rather than making them. And that attitude may actually make them less effective,” the researchers explain.

“Understanding your own blind spots and vulnerabilities can help make you a better manager and leader.”

Humble leadership

Humble leaders are those who are able to accept their own mistakes and limitations, while also appreciating the strengths of others. The authors explain that humble leaders are more likely to share knowledge and raise concerns, while openly admitting mistakes and striving to learn from them.

In one of the studies, 454 managers from various industries participated in an online experiment. They were asked to reflect on a mistake they made with their subordinates and what they learned from it, or to reflect on a mistake where they felt there was nothing to learn.

They were then presented with a workplace scenario and were asked to write about how they would behave in that situation. Their responses were then rated by trained graduate students for humility, such as acknowledging that others had more knowledge and skill than themselves.

The results showed that managers who reflected on a past mistake where they learned a lesson showed more humility than those who reflected on a mistake without learning.

Learning from mistakes

The benefits of learning from mistakes can be maximized when leaders approach the learning with a promotion focus rather than a prevention focus.

A promotion focus is oriented towards improvement and growth, and seeing how mistakes can lead to better ways of achieving goals. On the other hand, a prevention focus sees learning from mistakes as a short-term way to correct failures and avoid punishment.

This was shown in several experiments, including one involving 210 college students working in teams to help a small business and another involving 85 non-physician managers from medical schools and hospitals in the Midwest.

The results revealed that leaders with a promotion focus, who used the learning to improve and grow as leaders, were more likely to show humility and had teams that performed better.

“When leaders take what they learn from mistakes to improve and reach goals, that is what seems to be most valuable,” the researchers explain. “That builds humility, and teams respond to that. It makes team members look for ways they can improve.”

The results clearly show a need to fundamentally change how both organizations and society view the act and meaning of leadership so that it empowers leaders to acknowledge and learn from mistakes.

“We often see leaders who are afraid of even admitting they make mistakes, because they are worried it goes against the historic image of leadership,” the researchers conclude.

“But what we found is that reflecting on and learning from your mistakes can make you a more effective manager and leader. That’s what the mindset should be.”


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