Thursday, December 1, 2016

Valuing Humility in Leadership


In a blog post earlier this year, I wrote about the value of productive narcissism for leaders in organizations, but also raised some questions about its dangers. In this blog, I want to focus on humility - a trait we often don’t associate with leaders, especially those larger-than-life leaders past and present. Even among CEOs, the leaders who readily come to mind for many include Jack Welch, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – none of whom we would think of as humble. Jeffrey Pfeffer, in his book Leadership BS, in fact argues that while there are advantages to modesty (which he uses as a synonym for humility), there are several disadvantages. He claims that immodesty and narcissism actually help people attain leadership positions and help them to advance. He cites research that overconfident individuals tend to achieve higher social status, respect and influence in groups. Narcissists tend to exhibit more energy, dominance, self-confidence and charisma than non-narcissists. And he concludes that most companies have a preference for selecting leaders who are immodest, grandiose and narcissistic. Because they are more extroverted and have higher self-esteem, narcissists are more likely to be chosen as leaders and to be seen as having leadership potential.

Furthermore, it could be argued that humility might not work all that well cross-culturally. Power distance, the acceptance of inequality and status differences, is one of the major cultural dimensions differentiating cultures, with high power distance cultures such as Russia and Malaysia placing great importance on status, rank and deference to authority, and low power distance cultures such as Australia and Denmark placing less emphasis on hierarchy and titles. High power-distance cultures seem to admire authoritarian leaders who run their organizations (and countries) with an iron fist, and who display no outward signs of weakness.

Let’s first define humility, and then let me make the case for the value of humility in leadership. Owens et al. (2013), after reviewing the literature, proposes this definition: … an interpersonal characteristic that emerges in social contexts that connotes (a) a manifested willingness to view oneself accurately, (b) a displayed appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions, and (c) teachability. In my view, humility in leadership is first and foremost an orientation, a mindset, an attitude if you will, when engaging in interactions with others. The elements of this orientation are an openness to listen, a willingness to learn from others, and an awareness that one may not have all the answers.

Here are three reasons why humility is important for leaders. First, being humble tempers the excesses that extreme self-confidence can bring. The research on derailed managers shows very clearly that strengths when overused can lead to fatal flaws. Managers who derail show several traits and skills that more often than not narcissists have in abundance. They include lack of emotional stability, defensiveness, lack of integrity, insensitivity and abrasiveness. As summarized by Gary Yukl (2010):
“…the derailed managers could be charming when they wanted to, but over time it became evident that beneath the fa├žade of charm and concern for others, the person was really selfish, inconsiderate, and manipulative … when they disagreed with someone, (they) were more likely to be outspoken and offensive.”

In my judgment, Pfeffer’s conclusions about the value of narcissistic leaders are based on two flawed arguments. The first is that while the research does show that self-confident and outgoing individuals are more likely to be selected as leaders and to advance, it does not mean that they will be effective as leaders. This is perhaps why there are so many bad bosses, and why the psychologist Robert Hogan and others have cited that the base rate of managerial failure averages around 50 percent. In fact, Pfeffer’s descriptions seem out of synch with organizational reality. Executives who rise to the top because of their narcissism seldom are able to build sustainable organizational performance. They may be able to bluff and bully their way for a short period of time, but it all catches up to them. Perhaps thirty or forty years ago, such an executive might have been able to get away with this. But with the pressures for increased transparency and standards for a certain level of behavior, such narcissistic leaders do not survive for long in many corporations. Research has shown that all sorts of negative things can happen when people are placed in positions of power; for example, they begin devaluing the contributions of others, start thinking of themselves as superior, etc. The dose of humility in self-confident leaders helps them to become less arrogant. In fact, many other studies show that while charisma may predict career success and advancement, it does not necessarily predict organizational or firm performance. As Keltner (2016) has pointed out: “In primate social life, human and nonhuman alike, groups give power to those who advance the greater good. This basic power dynamic ensures that groups are led by individuals who will not be their undoing but will instead act with enthusiasm, kindness, focus, calm, and openness, thereby benefiting the groups.” (pp. 52, 55).

The second flaw in Pfeffer’s argument is that while it might indeed be the case that narcissists do display energy, dominance, self-confidence and charisma, these are not unique to narcissists. We do tend to like our leaders to show self-confidence and energy, but we don’t view these traits in isolation but as part of an entire package when we view them. It is the toxic mix of arrogance and disdain, along with a lack of humility, that dooms many narcissists. Pfeffer may also be confusing self-confidence with cockiness, and the two are actually very different. And the meta-analysis I mentioned in my earlier blog post found a wide range of relationships between narcissism and leadership effectiveness. On average, narcissists were no more or less likely to become effective leaders. In fact, there seems to be an inverted U-shaped relationship; leaders who are weak as well as those who are very strong narcissists don’t tend to become effective leaders.

The second argument for humility in leadership is that a humility mindset helps leaders make better decisions and build better teams through a balance between advocacy and inquiry. While leaders often believe that they have to be forceful and aggressive, and act like they know the answers (the advocacy position), they also need to balance this with a spirit of inquiry that encourages others to challenge them. They ask good questions, they seek feedback, they actively listen, they admit it when they make mistakes, they praise and recognize others and give them credit, and minimize bragging about their accomplishments and about themselves. In a recent Fortune article (November, 2016) about Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella, a former colleague said this about the Nadella’s humility: “(He) could suspend his disbelief and opinion to listen to you thoughtfully. The slight difference between listening to argue and listening to learn is not subtle. It’s huge. Satya is soft-spoken but energetic …”.  Recent studies of teams have shown that those led by high-empathy individuals tended to perform better on a series of collective intelligence tasks. Keltner (2016) argues that those with what he calls “enduring power” have empathy, are generous and tend to express gratitude. He does not explicitly use the term humility but this can be inferred from what he writes.

The third argument is that, in my experience, humility actually helps leaders when managing cross-culturally. When we are interacting with others from different cultures or nationalities, adapting a mindset that is flexible, accepting, curious and empathetic is essential (Henson, 2016). Humility is important especially in many cultures where building relationships and establishing trust are essential in developing business ties, as well as loyalty and commitment from local staff. I have seen many expatriates fail in their assignments when they believe that they know it all, especially because they come from corporate headquarters. Ethnocentrism is antithetical to humility. Even in low power distance cultures like Australia, for example, there is a cultural norm against the so-called tall poppy syndrome, where many want to put in their place those who have achieved something or are successful. Showing a dose of humility will certainly help.

Interestingly, there is a body of literature in the counseling field around cultural humility, and the importance of this orientation for therapists in working with their patients, especially those with different cultural backgrounds from the therapist. That is, the culturally humble therapist is open, self-aware, egoless, self-reflects and engages in supportive interactions (Foronda et al., 2016). Leaders of course are not therapists but do share an important common goal: that of creating commitment from others through positive influence. Furthermore, when leaders disempower us with their arrogance and lack of humility, our bodies start producing cortisol, which is what prepares the body for defense and a fight-or-flight response – not exactly ideal conditions for productivity and high performance. Cortisol increases our heart rate and blood pressure, and releases sweat in the hands. It also activates glucose production and stimulates the immune system. Over time, high levels of cortisol among employees lead to absenteeism and various health problems.

This is not a plea for leaders to suppress their self-confidence or their energy level, both highly important traits for leaders. However, confidence should not be confused with arrogance or self-righteousness. Leaders need to be confident; they need to have a point of view and express that point of view, but it does not mean that they cannot have some humility.

Here are three tips to developing a dose of humility. One, increase your self-awareness through regular self-debriefings and self-reflections. Reconstruct meetings that you’ve just had, for example, and, before jumping off to another meeting, take a couple of minutes to think about what you did that helped the meeting and what you might have done differently. Two, solicit feedback. On a regular basis, seek out individuals you trust and ask them what you could do to improve. Three, improve your listening skills. This is especially important for higher-status leaders who might not acknowledge their dependency on others, such as a senior surgeon at a hospital who is actually dependent on his operating room team. By practicing what Edgar Schein (2013) calls humble inquiry, this surgeon, as well as other leaders, can create a climate that gives others permission to help them should they need it.


Foronda, C. et al. (2016). Cultural Humility: A Concept Analysis. Journal of Transcultural Nursing, 27 (3), 210-217.

Henson, R. (2016). Successful Global Leadership: Frameworks for Cross-Cultural Managers and Organizations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Keltner, D. (2016). The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. New York: Penguin Press.

Owens, B. et al. (2015). Expressed Humility in Organizations: Implications for Performance, Teams, and Leadership. Organization Science, 24 (5): 1517-1538.

Pfeffer, J. (2015). Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. New York: HarperCollins.

Schein, E. (2013). Humble Inquiry. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Yukl, G. (2013). Leadership in Organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.




Tuesday, November 1, 2016

How Much Does Cultural Fit Matter?


Cultural fit matters to senior executives. Several years ago, the CEO of a major consumer products company decided to hire an executive from GE to a senior level position, partly to help drive change in the company’s culture. GE’s culture, at least during the Jack Welch era when this event took place, was characterized by bluntness and an in-your-face and confrontational approach to interactions. This company’s culture on the other hand, was quite genteel. Individuals who were promoted were considered to be “nice” and conflicts were often avoided or handled very discreetly. Even the CEO himself was a product of this culture, and disdained having to confront others. The culture fit between the GE transplant and his new company’s culture was stark, and within a year, he left the company. The resistance to his style was stiff, and he could not get the full support of the CEO for the changes he wanted to make, not just to the business strategy but also to the company’s practices and processes.

Take Ron Browett, who lasted six months as head of Apple’s retail operations because, according to CEO Time Cook, he was not a cultural fit. Many search firms believe that at least half of CEOs and senior executives who fail to “make the grade” do so because of a lack of alignment with the company’s corporate culture. The Wall Street Journal (October 12, 2016) reported that in a recent survey by Millennial Branding and Beyond.com, human-resources staff, when assessing college hires, ranked cultural fit above a candidate’s referrals, coursework and grades. A consulting company called RoundPegg claims that it has helped companies reduce turnover by assessing candidates on their culture fit with their hiring companies.

Cultural fit matters not just at the CEO level but down the line as well. Companies from Goldman Sachs to Zappos claim that cultural fit is important and they try to hire workers who somehow will fit into the company culture. The rationale here is that such employees will not only be happier but also more productive in the long run if they work in an environment that matches their preferences.

Fit also matters when working across borders. Carl was an expatriate manager who was assigned to work in the Japanese subsidiary of his firm. Introverted, unfailingly polite and deferential, he was a very popular gaijin with his Japanese colleagues. In meetings, he would often not speak out and offer his opinions until everyone else had, and was very respectful of the other executives in the local subsidiary. Carl’s job performance was outstanding. After three years in Japan, Carl’s company sent him to Sydney to help fix the marketing function in that company’s Australian subsidiary. After six months, the local general manager asked his regional boss to have Carl transferred elsewhere. Carl just did not fit in well with the Australian culture. The local CEO reflected on how Carl was perceived there: “No one could get along with him. Everyone felt he could not be trusted, because we never knew what he was thinking. It was as if he was always holding something close to the vest. He was so quiet that we didn’t really get to find out what he knew or what he could contribute.”

Fit even matters when considering individuals’ beliefs and societal beliefs and values. For example, Lu (2006) did a study of 412 Chinese university students in Taiwan and mainland China and found strong correlations between the degree of fit between individuals’ beliefs and societal beliefs with subjective well-being for these Taiwanese and mainland Chinese students.

So what exactly does cultural fit mean? Fit suggests there are pieces that need to be joined together, and cultural fit suggests some sort of congruence between the organization’s culture and the individual. But what specifically is it about the organization and its culture? Since culture is so broad, we need to define what aspects of the culture are important and that need to be considered when assessing an individual’s cultural fit. Professor Edgar Schein (Schein, 2013) has described culture as made up of tacit assumptions and their manifestations through such artifacts as language, behaviors, processes and architecture. It is not always easy to unearth these tacit assumptions because they often differ from a culture’s espoused values. For example, organizations have espoused values as reflected in their mission statements and speeches by company executives. Yet, when we consider these organizations’ processes and the behaviors of their leaders, the tacit assumptions will often differ from these espoused values. Consider the recent Wells Fargo case, where the espoused value was to take care of the customer, yet the reality was far different. As reported in the October 12, 2016 edition of the New York Times, Wells Fargo employees had been complaining for years about what they had seen: “employees opening sham accounts, forging customer signatures and sending out unsolicited credit cards.” This was despite a sales quality manual that reminded employees that they needed to obtain a customer’s consent before opening an account. Employees’ complaints were either ignored, or in some cases, the employees themselves were fired for insubordination. John Stumpf, Wells Fargo CEO who himself was recently fired, kept blaming the bank’s employees, not the culture, for this mess.

In interviews with recruiters and business executives, it seems that there are several interpretations of cultural fit, some of which are more problematic than others. The first is on fit around demographics, especially race and gender. Overt discrimination based on race and gender is illegal but there are still subtle signs of it around. Many companies these days profess to value diversity, and in fact have Chief Diversity Officers in senior roles. While there continue to be some exceptions in the business world (for example, the lack of gender diversity in Silicon Valley), there has indeed been progress in diversity based on race and gender. Very few companies would openly advocate cultural fit based on racial or gender similarity.

The second interpretation of fit is on congruence with day-to-day behaviors. An organization I knew of was known to have a very friendly, extroverted culture. It was not uncommon for employees at all levels to greet each other very warmly at the beginning of the work day. One manager very much resented having to put on a happy face in the morning. He did not want to engage in small talk nor even to smile before he had gone to his office, turned on his desktop, checked his e-mails and had his first cup of coffee. The buzz quickly spread around home office that this was a person who would never fit in to the company’s culture. He did not; he left after two years for another opportunity.

The third interpretation is around congruence with attitudes and interests. For some organizations, this is especially important at a micro level when individuals are being asked to join teams. In her study, Rivera (2012) found that assessors were interested in the candidates’ play styles and how they conducted themselves outside their office, rather than their work styles. She attributes the importance of this to the firm’s demands on employees working in the office or on the road, and the desire to make those days more enjoyable by having colleagues who could be playmates or friends. Rivera conducted in-depth interviews and fieldwork in one elite professional services firm and found, among other things, that “…similarity was the most common mechanism employers use to assess applicants at the job interview stage. Similarities in extracurricular /leisure pursuits, experiences, and self-presentation styles were most commonly used.” (p. 1006). One executive recruiter I spoke with mentioned an executive client who was looking for candidates who he felt he could get along well with if they were sitting side by side on a plane for ten hours.

A fourth interpretation is on congruence regarding values and beliefs. Let’s take an example from the Hogan Values Inventory, an instrument which some of my colleagues and I have used in the past with various clients. This inventory measures ten values, including Altruistic, Commercial, Hedonism, and Power. For example, here is what the Hogan inventory advises to a person who scores low in Power values: You don't need to prove yourself to others and may prefer to work in organizations that value teamwork and collaboration more than individual achievement. Being in an organization that trusts, respects, and supports you may be more important than having lots of opportunities for upward career mobility.
I D
Kristol-Brown et al. (2005) did a meta-analysis of hundreds of studies examining various kinds of “fit,” i.e., person-job fit, person-group, person-organization, and person-supervisor fit. In looking at person-environment fit, which is the closest to the concept of culture fit, they concluded this type of fit correlated strongly with job satisfaction, organizational attraction, applicant job acceptance, and organizational commitment, but had low correlations with job and task performance.

Cultural fit does lead to a propensity for liking and greater cooperation, and possibly efficiency with which tasks get accomplished. After all, most of us feel more comfortable if we are among people who are like us; in fact, we tend to be more accepting of their ideas as a result of this “perceived similarity” bias. However, there is no hard evidence that cultural fit defined broadly leads to desired organizational outcomes, such as innovation, creativity, and productivity. A tight cultural fit might in fact lead, at a minimum, to a lack of diversity, and at worst, to discrimination and worse. As Thau et al. (2015) have shown through several field and laboratory studies, people who are at a high risk for being excluded from their group are more prone to engage in unethical behavior, especially if they have a strong need for inclusion. Their findings are a bit disturbing, for they show the extent to which individuals could go to in order to “fit in.”

In his book Originals, Adam Grant (2016) states: “If you hire people who fit your culture, you’ll end up with people who reinforce rather than challenge one another’s perspectives.” (p. 190) He suggests hiring on cultural contribution, not on cultural fit. By this, he means that organizations should be looking for people who can enrich the culture and hiring those who have qualities that are missing from the current culture. In fact, in the same October 12 Wall Street Journal article reported earlier, the reporter cited Facebook as one company that “… discourages its managers from using culture fit as a criteria (sic) in hiring, pointing out that term is a ‘bias trap.’” A senior attorney-advisor in the office of legal counsel at the EEOC said that culture fit is a “vague, amorphous term that potentially could lead companies to exclude specific groups.”

What this suggests is that cultural fit should be based on congruence between the organization and the individual on beliefs and values, not on superficial aspects such as the way someone looks, dresses, or what sports teams they support. Based on extensive research by cultural anthropologists, the most important of these beliefs and values are around the following dimensions (these are discussed in greater depth in my recent book, Successful Global Leadership):
1.     authority and power versus egalitarianism
2.     independence and individualism versus interdependence and collaboration
3.     assertiveness and competitiveness versus harmony and consensus
4.     tradition versus adaptability and openness
5.     expressiveness and looseness versus order and structure.

Here are three recommendations for managers seeking to hire for cultural fit. First, focus cultural fit on those values that are most important to the organization. For example, how much does the organization value assertiveness and competitiveness over harmony and consensus? Make sure to go beyond those espoused values by reflecting and observing what behaviors gets rewarded, who gets ahead, and the actions of senior leaders. By focusing on these five sets of values, rather than looking at fit based on how people look, how they dress, or what their hobbies or interests are, organizations can avoid the unintended consequences that too much of a focus on cultural fit can lead to.

Second, learn how to assess candidates’ values by focusing on their behaviors, listening, and observing non-verbal cues. For example, many candidates will say that they are team players and that they take initiative. By asking behavioral questions and probing, you will be able to infer their preferences and values more accurately. Using an assessment tool such as the Hogan inventory or a simulation also helps. Third, consciously hire some cultural misfits to “hire for the future” (as Henon and Thompson suggest), especially when the organization is attempting to change some of its own cultural values to align better with its strategic direction. For example, for an organization with a culture that discourages speaking up and empowering employees, this means hiring those individuals and leaders who value speaking up and empowering others, and who have demonstrated these behaviors. These individuals may be cultural misfits but will be important change agents for your organization.

In summary, cultural fit still matters, but with two important caveats. One, be careful about focusing cultural fit too tightly on superficial attributes. Two, there are times when organizations need to hire some cultural misfits.


Kristof-Brown, A. et al. (2005). Consequences of Individuals’ Fit at Work: A Meta-Analysis of Person-Job, Person-Organization, Person-Group and Person-Supervisor Fit. Personnel Psychology, 58, 281-342.

Lu, L. (2006). “Cultural Fit”: Individual and Societal Discrepancies in Values, Beliefs, and Subjective Well-Being. Journal of Social Psychology, 146 (2): 206-221.

Henon, T. and Thompson, L. (February 15, 2016). How to Hire Without Getting Fooled by First
            Impressions. Harvard Business Review Digital Article.

Rivera, L. (2012) Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms. American Sociological Review, 77 (6): 999-1022.


Schein, E. (2013). Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.