According to a 2020 report on the American workforce by the Society for Human Research Management, 30% of respondents said their manager doesn’t encourage a culture of open and transparent communication, and 60% said their manager was the reason they left their organization. Simply put, many employees don’t feel like their managers provide them with a voice.

And that is a problem. Research has found that workplaces where employees have more of a voice—opportunities to proactively provide input and offer suggestions for improvement—are more likely to produce and implement innovative solutions to problems. Considering these benefits, psychologists have begun to investigate the factors that encourage “team voice.”

A recent study published by an international group of researchers in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found two traits that helped managers cultivate more open, communicative environments: gratitude and humility.

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This study was conducted in China with 50 different companies, including approximately 300 employees, 75 managers, and 50 executives. The researchers surveyed each level in the organization, asking employees about their manager’s humility and levels of team voice at work, asking the managers about how much gratitude they experienced in their daily lives, and asking executives how innovative each manager’s team was. Based on surveys collected over eight weeks, the researchers drew several conclusions about how gratitude and humility impact team voice and innovation.

First, they found that managers who experience more gratitude are more likely to act with humility. Employees reported that more grateful managers were more likely to seek feedback (even if it was critical) and admit when they did not know something or another employee knew better. In turn, when managers act with more humility, their employees subsequently report higher levels of team voice: a working environment where employees made more recommendations and were more vocal about their opinions. Also, executives rated the teams of grateful managers as more innovative, and this was explained by higher levels of humility and team voice.

“When assigning future leaders, organizations may look for candidates with high trait gratitude given that these individuals have the predisposition to develop into humble leaders who can promote team voice and foster team innovation,” the researchers write.

Although this is the first research examining many of these relationships in the workplace, the findings complement existing work on humility and gratitude, underscoring their importance. A large literature has already found that people who experience gratitude more frequently have a less defensive mindset and are more accepting of their own limitations, exhibit more teachability, and show more appreciation for the value of others’ contributions. These elements work together to promote humble behavior by decreasing focus on the self, while increasing focus on others and openness to differing perspectives.

For humility, researchers have identified that modeling humble behavior in a team setting (particularly when done by a leader) encourages the spread of humble behaviors and attitudes within that team, resulting in collective humility. In turn, collective humility enhances team performance.

At the end of the day, the science is clear that humility and gratitude can help us be better leaders and team members. But how do we cultivate them?

Try starting a journal with the things—big and small—that you’re grateful for throughout the week. Remember, the study found that managers who experienced gratitude in daily life, both in and out of work, led more innovative teams and promoted more openness and communication. On the job, one approach is to express gratitude not only for the work people do, but for who they are. As Mike Robbins, author of Bring Your Whole Self to Work, says, “Appreciation is about people and their value.”

  • Expanding Awareness of the Science of Intellectual Humility

    This article is part of our three-year GGSC project to raise awareness about intellectual humility research and its implications.

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Humility begins with awareness. It’s easy to over-attribute successes to our own greatness and erroneously explain away failures as someone (or something) else’s fault. When you’re experiencing highs and lows, always make an effort to ask yourself: “Is there something I could have done better?” or “Is there something I might not know?” More often than not, you might find that your successes were a team effort and that you had a role to play in your failures.

When cultivating humility, it’s important to remember that humility is not the same as self-doubt. For example, research suggests that in an educational context the most effective leaders strike this balance by having appropriate confidence in their beliefs while remaining open to the input of others and the possibility they are mistaken.

Whether you’re managing a project at work or planning a vacation with friends and family, striving toward humility and gratitude may promote more open communication and make for a better, more creative “team.”

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