Managers are often given advice that combines research-based buzzwords with fundamental misunderstandings. Empowerment is a good example. The word contains “power,” and advice is usually given to those who feel a need to improve, so it was perhaps inevitable that empowerment should be associated with ideas of individuals becoming or feeling empowered through some action of their own, such as attending a course or a coaching session on how to become empowered. That’s not what empowerment means or how it works: people are empowered when someone else gives them power and authority to make their own decisions.
The distinction is important because if empowerment improves organizations, then we should start by looking at the person who empowers others. That’s exactly what was done in research published in Administrative Science Quarterly by Amy Ou and collaborators. They looked at how a CEO’s humility could empower others in the firm. Their central insight is simple and powerful: a CEO’s humility makes it easier for the top management team to work together, because each feels empowered and comfortable, and that effect on the top management team cascades down the organization.
They found that the humble CEO is the opposite of the showy CEO in two key ways. First, the humble CEO does not dominate but instead is understated and makes it easier for the closest executives to stand up and perform. For example, the humble CEO does not make public performances and speeches to the whole organization but instead lets the empowerment of the closest executives cascade down. Second, humble CEOs encourage communication to give shared understanding, which in turn lets subordinates feel motivated and confident about their decisions and helps their managers trust their judgment and commitment. This cascading down of shared understanding and trust can bring whole organizations together more effectively than inspirational speeches by showy CEOs.
There is much about that research that appeals to us, because most of us share the suspicion that showy, self-promoting, narcissist CEOs must be flawed in some way. Yet such CEOs are very common, and part of the reason is that it is easier to imagine people who make a big impression also having big effects on the firms they lead. Humility is such a low-key behavior and such (what else can I say?) humble thinking that it is hard to imagine it having a big effect. But it does. How?
The keyword is empowerment. Humble CEOs empower their top management teams. Empowered top management teams create an organizational climate that empowers workers all the way down. A top management team that has been empowered and in turn empowers others creates norms that are so strong that it is hard to be an authoritarian manager. That’s how humility has big effects on organizations: it creates an expanding circle of empowerment.