How Leaders Can Balance Confidence and Humility

June 25, 2019

How Leaders Can Balance Confidence and Humility

Knowing how well you are performing at work is often difficult. To accurately assess your own performance, you typically need information from others, information which is not often voluntarily provided. Because of this, academics and practitioners advise employees and managers to seek feedback from others. Extensive organizational research supports the benefits of such direct feedback seeking and documents its positive effects on performance, evaluations of effectiveness by key internal stakeholders, and creativity.       

Yet, evidence suggests that people do not often follow the advice to seek feedback. For example, a study comparing a host of proactive work behaviors found feedback-seeking to be the least frequently reported of those behaviors. Similarly, in an assessment of supervisors, the statement: “… asks for feedback on how his/her actions affect other people’s performance” received the lowest frequency rating among 30 other managerial behaviors.

Why don’t people seek feedback from others? One likely explanation has to do with people’s sense of self-efficacy, or their confidence in their ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish specific tasks. Accepted wisdom suggests that people with lower self-efficacy have more fragile egos compared to those with higher self-efficacy, which means they are more likely to worry about hearing negative information regarding the self or appearing incompetent or uncertain in the eyes of others. As a result, people with less confidence in their abilities are expected to not ask for feedback, whereas more confident people are expected to do so more frequently. 

Boosting Feedback Seeking
In a recent paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, we challenge this accepted wisdom. We argue that although higher self-efficacy can reduce the threat of asking for feedback, it can also act as a powerful internal source of information about one’s performance, which may cause people with higher self-efficacy to discount the potential value of feedback from outside sources. Therefore, unless high self-efficacy is tempered by something that motivates people to go beyond internal or self-referential sources of information about their performance, it may not have a positive effect on feedback seeking, and may actually have a negative effect. 

If that is true, what might temper the effects of high self-efficacy? We propose that perspective taking, or the active cognitive process of imagining the world from others’ viewpoints, will play such a tempering role. When individuals engage in perspective taking, those with high self-efficacy are more likely to recognize the value of feedback from others, and thus seek such feedback more. 

We tested our arguments across multiples studies with non-supervisory employees, managers, and leaders. In all of our studies, when examined alone, self-efficacy and feedback seeking were unrelated. However, when we accounted for perspective taking, a different pattern emerged. For those with low perspective taking tendencies, higher self-efficacy was accompanied by less feedback seeking. However, for those with high perspective taking tendencies (and for those who we had engage in perceptive taking), this negative effect disappeared, and in some case, it reversed.  

All in all, our work suggests that a high level of self-efficacy in the absence of perspective taking can make one less likely to invest effort in trying to gather information that can help to accurately assess one’s performance. Our findings show that this applies to both managerial and non-managerial employees who could likely benefit from engaging in more frequent perspective taking. 

Advice for Leaders
From a leadership perspective, our findings echo discussions by academics and practitioners who highlight the tension leaders often face between acting confidently on one hand and showing humility and openness to learning on the other hand. These discussions highlight how leaders who are able to display both are more effective. 

Our work suggests that one behavioral approach leaders could adopt to achieve this paradoxical outcome: engaging in more frequent perspective taking. In fact, our results show that a relatively small and costless perspective taking interventions (for example, asking people to spend a few minutes imagining what others would likely see, think, and feel in a certain situation) can change the effect of high self-efficacy on feedback seeking behavior, which is crucial for learning. As others have put it, “learning requires the humility to realize one has something to learn,” and we believe engaging in perspective taking can foster such humility.

More broadly, and given perspective taking’s many other documented benefits, organizations and individuals may consider explicitly incorporating perspective taking into their routines or at key moments as a way to increase feedback-seeking. In fact, many organizations already use apps and algorithms as “digital coaches” that remind or nudge employees to engage in beneficial work behaviors. Given the relative ease with which perspective taking interventions can be implemented, we believe organizations can cheaply nudge their employees or leaders to engage in more feedback seeking. 

Finally, our findings suggest that people can benefit from a moment of reflection or perspective taking when they are feeling confident in their ability or performance. Before you send out that memo, finalize that sales pitch, or upload a new website layout, it might be worth asking yourself, “what am I missing here that others might see? Is my confidence warranted, or is it misleading me to think I am doing well, while others might see otherwise?” Thinking this way might give you the desire to go and seek others’ input and could end up improving your performance. 

The Authors: 

Elad N. Sherf is an assistant professor at the Organizational Behavior area of the Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 

Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison is a professor in the Management and Organizations Department and the ITT Harold Geneen Professor in Creative Management at NYU Stern School of Business University.