A recent study suggests that for chief executive officers who want to boost their company's bottom line, it pays to adopt a humble management style. In fact, something as simple as seeking feedback from those who work closely with the CEO has important payoffs.

Research by University of Michigan Ross School of Business Professor Sue Ashford indicates that a CEO who asks for feedback on his or her performance from top managers can improve the executive team's confidence and, through that confidence boost, can improve firm performance.

It also shows that such seeking may be a useful substitute for what the study authors call more "heroic" forms of leadership, such as articulating a vision and bringing it to the group.

"We provide the first evidence that seeking feedback from top management team members is an important avenue through which CEOs can strengthen the team and improve firm performance," says Ashford.

Humble vs. Visionary

Ashford and colleagues developed and tested a conceptual model to explore the effects of more and less humble behaviors when they are enacted at the top of the organizational hierarchy, and then they analyzed responses from CEOs and top managers from 65 firms.

"Feedback-seeking is a strategy for leadership available to those who might feel less confident to determine and then articulate a vision for the firm," she says.

"Our findings highlight feedback-seeking as a humble means through which CEOs might enhance firm performance."

Management teams showed more confidence when a CEO clarified his vision or requested feedback on his management approaches.
Management teams showed more confidence when a CEO clarified his vision or requested feedback on his management approaches. Both were effective. However, for some CEOs and other leaders, being visionary is not a comfortable style.

For those leaders, the study has some good news: CEOs who are not perceived as articulating a clear vision can achieve the same success as more charismatic, articulate CEOs as long as they are frequently seeking feedback from their top managers.

In contrast, according to the research, the benefits of feedback-seeking are less pronounced for CEOs who are described as articulating a vision.

"Although more research is needed, this finding raises the possibility that CEOs may be better served to employ either a more-or-less humble leadership style, rather than blending elements of these styles," Ashford said.

This article is based on materials provided by the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Content may be edited for style and length. Study co-authors were Ned Wellman of Arizona State, Mary Sully de Luque of Thunderbird School of Global Management, Katleen De Stobbeleir of Vlerick and Melody Wollan of Lumpkin College.