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This Surprising Sign Will Determine the Odds of a Good Boss

Consider vetting your prospective or new manager.

Key points

  • Corporate America tends to glorify infallible, aggressive leaders. But recent research signals a shift.
  • A leading managerial trait that will help determine one's job satisfaction and motivational level is humility.
  • Watch for this trait among prospective and existing bosses to help gauge future compatibility.

With a series of headlines in the last year about Great Resignations, Quiet Quitting, a tug of war over remote work, layoff fears, and an employee exodus to contract work—it’s no wonder bosses and employees seem to be in a virtual Cold War. But there’s one early warning sign that can help you determine whether your new boss will ultimately lean more towards Attila the Hun or a virtual saint.

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Corporate America has always glorified the flawless, invincible leader. But it’s becoming increasingly evident that employees no longer buy into the powerful, fearless boss who can do no wrong. As workers push back on rigid management styles, return-to-work policies, and toxic cultures, the overriding attribute of a good boss points to humility.

One recent study revealed that humble leader behavior results in higher individual performance and team productivity. Increasingly, research supports the fact that humility among CEOs is likely to improve employee engagement and satisfaction. And this is not just a coveted characteristic for leaders. According to additional research on the topic, it is also a key predictor of job performance for employees.

It’s a trait that can easily be overlooked when evaluating your prospective or new manager. Most tend to focus on other criteria, such as business acumen or credentials. Of course, a boss must be qualified to lead. But assuming all other reasonable standards have been met, this attribute can help decipher whether your manager can truly motivate you to be your best.

How to Define Humility in a Boss

A little modesty in leadership goes a long way. We know that having an arrogant or braggart boss is certainly on no one’s wish list. But how do you define humility? While there are hundreds of sub-traits and other factors, here are five that stand out:

  1. Sensitivity: Humble bosses know the value of a more civilized work environment where people really matter. By not being afraid to be vulnerable among team members, these managers create a more inspirational workplace. It’s safe to make mistakes. Empathy for others is not seen as a sign of weakness. These managers know how to humanize the workplace.
  2. Self-awareness: The ability to recognize one’s own strengths and weaknesses is a key factor. Humble bosses are cognizant of how others see them and can reflect on their words and actions. They have the emotional intelligence to change their course for the better. The antithesis is a boss who is unaware of the negative impact they can have on the team.
  3. Open-mindedness: With humble bosses, it’s not their way or the highway. They welcome new ideas and creativity because they know it benefits the company as a whole. These managers are never threatened by a better approach or by team members. They don’t take credit for the work of others.
  4. Democratic versus autocratic style: It’s not uncommon to find a dictatorial management style today despite the prevalence of leadership training. Unfortunately, a lot of this behavior stems from insecurity, ranging from fear of their overall performance to their own job security to merely losing control over their employees. A more employee-centric, flexible style of management is consistent with humility.
  5. A sense of humor: Using levity and the ability to laugh at oneself engenders warmth, sincerity, and trust. If handled correctly, this kind of humor conveys confidence and is not seen as a weakness. Well-placed, clever humor pointed at oneself, not others, is a well-documented coveted attribute for career advancement. It separates great leaders from good ones.

Where Is Your Future or Current Boss on the Humility Index?

The best time to watch carefully for this attribute is in the job interview process.

This is your opportunity to gauge their “humility index.” Is the hiring manager amicable or a know-it-all? Do they seem genuinely interested in your responses? Do they show compassion for any jitters you may have? Or do they act boastful? Evaluating this once on the job is still helpful, especially if you’re considering greener pastures.

A couple of caveats: If your boss doesn’t seem particularly humble, that doesn’t necessarily mean doom. Some managers are slow to warm up to others, and they may possess other characteristics that make them amicable. Also, at the extreme, being too self-deprecating can trigger a loss of confidence among the team.

Unfortunately, humility can’t easily be taught to your boss when trying to manage up. So, vetting your boss early on for this trait is about the best you can do.

What Does Manager Humility Look Like?

Here’s a classic workplace situation that underscores this beneficial character attribute. Jack is a department head at a reputable marketing firm. At meetings, when he’s over his head on details of a pressing issue—he makes sure to defer to team members closer to the topic day-to-day. There is no blustering, posturing, or covering up.

Jack always finds ways to throw in self-effacing, light-hearted comments at meetings. He says things like, “Well, perhaps I got lucky on calling that one,” or, kiddingly, “Don’t quote me on this because I was wrong once.” Jack’s team never questions his competency.

By vetting your boss early on for humility, you can get an inside peek into your prospects of a long-term, positive relationship. And if you’re wondering if this trait will help advance your own career, consider how the most successful managers you know rose to the top.

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