Why leaders should focus on resolving negativity—through humility

Senior leader in discussion with her team.

Release Date: February 25, 2021

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“A dilemma for leaders with limited time and bandwidth is where to focus: building positive relationships or resolving negative ones. Human beings are attuned to and more influenced by the negative. ”
University at Buffalo School of Management

A leader who displays humble behaviors can boost team performance by reducing negative relationships in the group, according to new research from the University at Buffalo School of Management.

Recently published in Human Relations, the study found that while negative relationships in groups are rarer than positive ones, the negative is far more influential on team effectiveness and performance.

“A dilemma for leaders with limited time and bandwidth is where to focus: building positive relationships or resolving negative ones,” says Paul Tesluk, professor and dean of the UB School of Management. “Human beings are attuned to and more influenced by the negative.”

The researchers conducted two surveys with work teams consisting of 120 formal leaders and nearly 500 team members altogether. The first survey asked team members to assess the humility of their managers and the social networks within their teams. Five months later, they surveyed the teams a second time to have leaders evaluate team performance and team members report their assessment of team-helping norms. 

Their results show that humble leaders have fewer negative relationships on their teams and more positive ones, which results in members helping each other more—making them more effective in the long term. Also, these members are more likely to remain on the team.

“Studies have shown the harmful impact a few ‘bad apples’ can bring to work groups,” says Prasad Balkundi, associate professor and chair of organization and human resources in the UB School of Management. “Humble leaders are more self-aware, show more appreciation toward others, engage in more listening and model a culture of learning by accepting mistakes. They also serve as role models, allowing team members to become more positive and forgiving.”

The researchers recommend several ways to improve managers’ humility levels, including fostering a learning organization culture, selecting leaders who can be good role models, and promoting this learning through training.

Tesluk and Balkundi collaborated on the study with UB School of Management graduate and the study’s lead author Chia-Yen (Chad) Chiu, PhD, associate director of the Centre for Workplace Excellence at the University of South Australia, and Bradley Owens, PhD, associate professor in the Brigham Young University Marriott School of Business.

The UB School of Management is recognized for its emphasis on real-world learning, community and economic impact, and the global perspective of its faculty, students and alumni. The school also has been ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek, the Financial Times, Forbes and U.S. News & World Report for the quality of its programs and the return on investment it provides its graduates. For more information about the UB School of Management, visit mgt.buffalo.edu.

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