One’s real personality shines bright when they are caught in a pickle at work, as they begin hoping for the best outcome while doing the right thing. As a consequence, they remind themselves of their inner values and beliefs and put in the effort to best diffuse the situation.
That being said, are there certain such attributes that could negatively boost work performance? When it comes to being humble and modest, both are supposedly excellent virtues to have as an employee. But, in the long run, does one attribute accelerate job performance more than the other?
Professor He Peng, School of Management Fudan University, takes on the challenge to scrutinize these two constructs on the different dimensions of job performance.
Time and again, a perfect employee is determined by what they contribute to an organisation as a whole. Managers have, and still view, job performance as the most crucial variable in determining one’s suitability in a workplace.
The words humble and modest are often positively used to describe those managers and leaders who bring about the most productive results. Strong evidence over the years has implied that humility has been at the core of effective leadership, while modesty is the backbone of corporate advancement.
More often than not, when asked to define humility, a significant number of people use layman’s terms and utilize the word ‘modesty’ in their interpretation. Strangely enough, the exact thing occurs when asked for the definition of modesty and the word ‘humility’ shows up. These definitions are closely intertwined in the minds of the people, however, that doesn’t express whether they bring out the greater good individually. For example, in work environments, these characteristics are quintessential for great results. But, when examined distinctly, do they exhibit identical quotients on an employee’s performance?
A great deal of research has been conducted separately on the concepts of humility and modesty being the key fragments of work outcomes. However, just a handful of studies examine the close link between this duo side-by-side.
Dissecting the confusion
Professor He Peng decided to dig deeper into this niche of confusion, to comprehensively identify the effects of modesty and humility in a professional performance setting. He went about it by reaching out to 77 managers who participated in a survey and further recommended around 239 subordinates who volunteered to engage in the questionnaire.
Preceding scholars have highlighted the multi-dimensional nature of job performance and additionally determined its sub-dimensions as equally important. As a consequence, Professor He Peng investigated the collected data across 4 different magnitudes: task performance, citizenship behaviour, unethical pro-organisational behaviour, and innovative behaviour.
Humility vs Modesty
In a workplace, the virtues of humility and modesty mainly overlap from an interpersonal point of view. Humility and modesty from an inner view can frequently come out as confusing and repetitive. But when given thought from an external aspect or – in other words, behaviours manifestations, they have well-determined differences.
As a result, in his research, Professor He Peng defined them from an interpersonal aspect. Here, humility is seen in multiple ways such as – a reflection of one’s willingness to underline their shortcomings, to compliment others’ vigour, and to be open to criticism from their peers. Contrastingly, modesty is defined as a discrete form of self-portrayal.
In today’s world, managers need to understand their subordinates in their entirety to determine their strengths and weaknesses. However, understanding the underlying motives of one’s behaviour at work is key. Rather than using trial and error to decide whether a team member performs better at a task, comprehending their primary motivations supports a faster, better and more considerate solution.
To get the job done
When given a task, an employee’s personality plays a big role in their work behaviour. And for managers, it is imperative to understand their team’s distinctive patterns. Moreover, making use of this observation, managers must seek to support their subordinates to increase productivity and contribute towards core tasks, while keeping their distinct style of functioning in place.
Being a humble employee is always seen as a positive feature, but when looked closely, there are tinier specks of humility that can cater to even better work performance. Those who are perceived as humble, often have a continuous learning attitude and this frame of mind is what brings on their very best when dedicated to a task. Secondly, a humble employee is well-aware and can analyse their weaknesses, while being open to feedback from all avenues which makes them well-seasoned to make important decisions. As seen in many firms, recruiters too stress the importance of a prospective employee’s self-consciousness and self-awareness similarly.
On the contrary, modesty among employees has its very own pros and cons. An employee’s modest representation can enhance work engagement and motivate managers to guide them actively. Inversely, modesty can also undermine one’s attributes, capabilities, and characteristics. Modesty bears with it a risky chip that can shadow one’s real image and lead to lower involvement of their superiors and thus hinder task performance. Keeping in mind this two-faced nature of modesty raises the question of its effects on one’s task performance.
Some rules are better left unsaid
In mundane words, citizenship behaviour from a business standpoint is used to describe the positive behaviours that are expected but aren’t explicitly stated for the employees to follow. However, these sets of behaviours do cater to the smooth functioning of an organisation.
Out of the five organisational citizen behaviours, helping and voicing are two of them where modesty and humility can be easily linked. They are both affiliating and challenging and are crucial across workforces in dynamic environments.
People who wear their humility on their sleeve, tend to see their own worthiness as well as others. They complement, encourage, and support subordinates while being self-aware of their highs and lows. Employees like these strongly support equal treatment for all and are known as egalitarians. For example, in past studies of humble world leaders, those who believed in running a country by listening to the needs of the people, and putting the people’s needs first, were successful and loved – making their helping and voicing behaviour closely related to their humility.
However, citizenship behaviour is a little more complex than that when it comes to being modest. Modesty comes along in one when they are often trying to skip past the spotlight, and helping a colleague might be viewed as an uninvited guest. Whereas, when it comes to voicing their opinions in a work environment, once again, it carries along a risk of exposure and too much attention, and so might be a big ‘No’ for such employees.
Legally Yes, ethically No
There might come a time when every manager or employee has to decide to do the right thing and suffer a loss, or engage in wrongdoing but benefit the organisation as a whole. When this comes down to violating societal norms or behaviour, it’s called unethical pro-organisational behaviour or UPOB. It’s often said that UPOB is for the betterment of all in the organisation, and is done with a good sentiment at heart. But, typically, UPOB might be adverse for a firm in the long run.
In an enterprise, humble managers recognise and put their beliefs in a greater entity like laws, and regulations and seek the good of all. Moral principles play a big part in a humble employee’s personality, and when it comes to UPOB, they might stray far away from it, as it clashes with their conventional social perspective.
Inversely, modest managers have a strong sense of self-protection and care a lot about how they are viewed by their peers. When it comes to taking a risk, they are more sensitive towards it as it can increase or decrease their acceptance across the organisation. Protecting themselves comes first and they are more likely to play a part in UPOB.
Innovation: Not an underlying skill, but an uprooted self-virtue
In this post-crisis world, being innovative and creative is encouraged and sought after across many industries. As and when a trend flows into a company-specific business, innovative organisations have recently been successful by adapting to it and therein, staying in the corporate race. But, behind all the innovative faces, comes an open mindset of every member of the firm.
While recruiting, it’s this company culture that hiring managers seek, but oftentimes it’s hard to assess innovation amongst the young crowd. Furthermore, there arises a question of whether an employee’s character plays a big difference in their innovative thinking.
Looking at past research, innovative behaviour and personal values in an employee can be closely linked. For example, an open-minded thinking process is observed in those individuals who welcome others’ feedback, learn through their superiors and handle criticism well. These are also the same traits observed in an employee who displays humility in their day-to-day activities. That being the case, it’s evident that innovation blends in well with a humble person.
On the other hand, modesty might just trigger a negative correlation with innovative behaviour. Innovation drags in attention which is the biggest non-negotiable factor in books of a modest man. Moreover, innovation is a risk where failure follows closely, which in the minds of people reduces one’s attractiveness and appeal, and thus is a task modest people won’t adapt to.
Hail the humble manager
For the newest generation, being in a workplace driven by confident, charismatic, and highly persuasive leaders is the trend. While applying for jobs, every applicant upskills themselves, improves their CV, and prepares their selling pitch. But they often forget to drink their daily dose of encompassing values such as integrity, humility, and respect.
The personal section of an interview, where a hiring manager tries to magnify an employee’s values and beliefs is easily ignored by the applicants because they believe they have the accountability, commitment, and dedication required for the job. Even so, it is as or even more important than the technical screenings of an employee screening process.
Professor He Peng’s research benefits not just hiring and business managers, but also those young applicants failing to cross their tough and gruelling interview processes. Through this detailed comparison between humility and modesty on workplace productivity, it’s evident that taking up the act of being humble will go a long way.
When analysed across the multiple dimensions of job performance, modesty is observed to be positively related to just one factor of unethical pro-organisational behaviour. As the modest employee is driven by their motive of protecting themselves first, they are likely to give into any kind of risk to maintain their image and will participate in unethical activities, even if it’s socially unethical.
Whereas humble employees positively correlate to task performance, helping, voicing, and innovative behaviour as well. Humility comes out above and makes it clear that when combined with modesty, it could affect one’s job performance negatively to a large extent. That’s the core confusion that this research solves. Assuming humility and modesty to be synonyms might work in daily life. But when these attributes contribute towards work performance, one is better than the other – and definitely, it’s humility.
So, to all managers – don’t sell humility short. It plays a vital role in one’s contribution and works as a helping hand while growing your business.
- Link up with Prof. He Peng on LinkedIn
- Related article: Envy, conflict and knowledge-hiding: A chain reaction
- Visit the School of Management Fudan website
- Apply for the MBA programme at School of Management Fudan University.
Learn more about the Council on Business & Society
The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.
Member schools are all “Triple Crown” accredited AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA and leaders in their respective countries.
- ESSEC Business School, France-Singapore-Morocco
- FGV-EAESP, Brazil
- School of Management Fudan University, China
- IE Business School, Spain
- Keio Business School, Japan
- Stellenbosch Business School, South Africa
- Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
- Warwick Business School, United Kingdom.