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Research Highlights

March 2014 www.IACMR.org

How Do Humble CEOs Empower Top and


Middle Managers?
Amy Y. Ou, National University of Singapore
Anne S. Tsui, Angelo J. Kinicki, David A. Waldman, Arizona State University
Zhixing Xiao, George Washington University
Lynda Jiwen Song, Renmin University of China
Humble CEOs improve top management team (TMT) integration by practicing
empowering leadership. TMT integration then increases middle managers
perception of an empowering organizational climate, which in turn is associated
with middle managers work engagement, commitment, and job performance.
This conclusion was based on our investigation of 63 private companies in China
involving 63 CEOs, 328 top management team members, and 645 middle managers.

A CEOs unconstrained exercise of power and high self-regard can significantly


and broadly affect organizations. Previous research has found that self-aggrandizing
CEOs tend to make riskier investments, pay higher premiums for acquisitions, pursue
more dynamic and grandiose strategies, and cause organizational performance to
fluctuate. We thus suggest that leaders might perform better by showing humility: by
dropping airs of omniscience and authority, avoiding communicating in monologues,
and compensating for their missing skills by relying on others.
We provide a comprehensive definition and a valid measure of CEO humility and
then show how followers experience CEO humility by focusing on two subordinate
levels immediately below the CEO: top management team (TMT) and middle managers.
We tested our ideas on 63 private companies in China involving 63 CEOs, 328 TMT
members, and 645 middle managers. We interviewed the CEOs and the top and middle
managers who completed a survey over two time periods. The study was confined to
Chinese managers, so we do not claim that the findings apply everywhere.

Humility
Overall, humble individuals accept that something is greater than the self. Humility
is manifested in self-awareness, openness to feedback, appreciation of others, low selffocus, and pursuit of self-transcendence. Humble people willingly seek accurate selfknowledge and accept their imperfections while remaining fully aware of their talents
and abilities. They appreciate others positive worth, strengths, and contributions and
thus have no need for entitlement or dominance over others.
International Association for Chinese Management Research

Research Highlights

As executives, humble leaders are less selffocused and more engaged in pursuits that transcend
their self-interests. Being aware of something
greater than the self, they understand that they fall
short of an ideal standard they are striving to reach.
Their life pursuits are less about themselves than
about the larger community, the greater whole,
moral principles, or ultimate universal truth. Selftranscendence protects them from excessive ego and
pursuits of materialism or excessive luxury.

How Do Humble CEOs Connect to


Top and Middle Managers?
Empowerment across various hierarchical
levels and departments requires shared
understanding of organizational mission, values,
and goals. If shared understandings are lacking,
overall coordination redundancies, cannibalization,
or failures to synchronize and sequence actions can
occur. Shared information influences attitudes and
behaviors. When TMTs are integrated, members
are willing to collaborate, share information,
make joint decisions, and develop shared vision,
all critical for coordinating actions and reaching
strategic consensus. We use the term shared vision to
capture shared common mental models that provide
the basis for within-team action. Shared vision is
a part of integration: it creates a sense of shared
fate, motivates team collaboration and information
sharing, unites divergent perspectives, and reduces
destructive relational conflicts that impede joint
decision making.
CEOs can affect lower-level employees through
practices such as leadership styles, management
philosophies, resource allocation, or organizational
culture. Regarding TMT integration, humble, lowself-focused CEOs who appreciate others would
be less intrusive and thus would delegate authority
to the TMT. Therefore, humble CEOs would
affect middle managers by shaping the attitudes of
TMT members who, in turn, build an empowering
organizational climate below the TMT level.
International Association for Chinese Management Research

March 2014 www.IACMR.org

In empowering organizational climates, middle


managers have shared perceptions about information
sharing, autonomy, and team-based self-management
in organizational practices, policies, procedures, and
routinesthe contextual conditions that enable work
place empowerment. Empowering climates fulfill
needs for competence and autonomy and stimulate
intrinsic motivation.
When middle managers perceive that they
operate in an empowering organizational climate,
they may respond in three ways. They may show
greater vigor, dedication, and absorption in their
work. Such work engagement elevates psychological
well-being. They may show affective commitment,
or emotional attachment, to the organization, which
assures that the organization will retain loyal talent.
They may respond through better performance,
which contributes to strategy implementation.

Our Findings and Implications for


Leaders
In summary, we found that the following
results:
CEO humility is associated with empowering
leadership behaviors.
CEO empowering leadership behaviors
support TMT integration.
TMT integration increases middle managers
perceptions of an empowering organizational
climate.
An empowering organizational climate
increases middle managers work engagement,
affective commitment, and job performance.
Our findings alter the common
misunderstanding that humble CEOs lack confidence
or may be unable to motivate others. We suggest that
influential leaders need not be masculine, dominant,
or authoritarian. Instead they can be humble and form
shared meaning across hierarchical levels, which
in turn affects employee attitudes and behaviors at
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Research Highlights

lower levels. Humble CEOs have strategic value in


building competitive advantage through cultivating
shared perceptions across hierarchical levels.

Remaining Questions
Some important questions remain to be
answered. In China, Taoism philosophy encourages
leaders to rule without explicit actions. This means
that leaders would use indirect action to persuade
followers to act, allowing followers to believe that
they are responsible for successes. Would Chinese
leaders who practice Taoism be more humble than
others? Whereas we focus only on TMT integration

March 2014 www.IACMR.org

linking CEO humility to middle managers


responses, other mediators might be important as
well. For example, the process by which CEOs
communicate goals and create vertical and horizontal
alignments of goals across organizational levels
may influence a CEOs leadership and quality of
decision implementation. It would be interesting to
explore how subordinates respond to humble CEOs
or leaders in Western contexts such as the United
States, where humility is assumed to be rarer or
less valued. Finally, our study treats humility as a
stable trait and does not consider that individuals
can mature functionally, indicated by increased
conscientiousness and emotional stability.

This version is based on the full article, A Humble Chief Executive Officers Connections
to Top Management Team Integration and Middle Managers Responses Administrative
Science Quarterly 59 (1), 2014, 34-72. Amy Y. Ou (bizyo@nus.edu.sg) is an assistant professor
of organizational behavior at NUS Business School, National University of Singapore. Anne S.
Tsui (anne.tsui@asu.edu) is the Motorola Professor of International Management at the W. P.
Carey School of Business, Arizona State University. Angelo J. Kinicki (angelo.kinicki@asu.
edu) is the Weatherup/Overby Chair in Leadership and Professor of Management at the W. P.
Carey School of Business, Arizona State University. David A. Waldman (waldman@asu.edu) is a
professor of management at the W. P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University. Zhixing
Xiao (xzhixing@gwu.edu) is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Chinese Business at George
Washington University. Lynda Jiwen Song (songjiwen@rbs.org.cn) is an associate professor of
organizational behavior at the School of Business, Renmin University of China.

International Association for Chinese Management Research