Supervisor Humility and Shared Leadership Build Better Teams

Shared Leadership in Teams

Many researchers and practitioners have suggested that leadership is critical for improving team performance. Traditionally, we believe that the source of team leadership solely comes from the hierarchical leader, the one who is granted with formal authority such as team supervisor or manager. However, due to the increasing task complexity and difficulty of modern work teams, the formally assigned leader may not able to fulfill all the required leadership functions. Particularly when they must rely heavily on knowledge sharing and learning to respond to unpredictable and continuously changing circumstances, teams need highly skilled and knowledgeable members who can exert a collective influence to take advantage of the variety of internal resources, information, and skills that these members can bring to the team. This participative leadership is called “shared leadership”, a group-based working structure generated from reciprocal reliance and shared influence among team members so as to achieve team goals. In a team with a high level of shared leadership, every one can take the lead when the team needs him/her, and every one has his/her unique contribution to the team outcomes.

Supervisor’s Humility and Shared Leadership 

But how to encourage shared leadership?

One of my recent studies is about how team supervisors improve shared leadership in teams. The answer is simple, these managers should express their humility. By definition, humble leaders are those who are willing to publicly admit their mistakes, recognize the expertise of others, and then learn from their followers. With the displayed humility, team leaders are able to signal that proactively providing contributions and taking lead are encouraged in their team, which improve members’ willingness to engage in leadership functions as well as shared leadership. Using a sample composed by  62 professional work teams in Taiwan, my co-authors and I find that leader humility can improve shared leadership by encouraging team members to spontaneously lead and follow their peers, and the elevated level of shared leadership can eventually improve team task performance.

Be Careful about Displaying Humility when Promoting Shared Leadership

However, humility may not be always effective for enhancing shared leadership. Based on the result of interaction analysis, humble leaders improve shared leadership only when the followers sore a high proactive personality . As humility is a less dominant form of leadership that provides more flexibility and freedom for followers to invest their contributions in teams, it should be compatible with followers who are more self-initiating, expressive, and proactive. Moreover, team shared leadership have a stronger effect on team outcomes when the team is staffed with highly competent individuals. When members have high levels of expertise and competence to offer the team, the cohesive network structure of shared leadership should effectively channel their influence where and when it is most needed, thereby strengthening the relationship between shared leadership and team performance.

Research Contributions and Implications

The contribution of this study could be multiple-fold. First,  We provide suggestions for formal team leaders to build shared leadership in their teams. Specifically, to help team members to build mutual reliance, formal team leaders can demonstrate humble behaviors by publicly praising followers and showing a high willingness to learn from others. Second, we suggest that when leaders seek to build shared leadership in teams, in addition to displaying humility, they should assess the level of proactivity that exists within the team or select for proactivity when compiling a team’s membership. Moreover, team members’ performance capability or task competence could alter the effectiveness of shared leadership. We recommend that organizations conduct proper training programs for employees to enhance their general job competence before or in conjunction with efforts to develop shared leadership within their teams.

Other Comments on Shared Leadership

My coauthor Professor Paul Tesluk also makes a two-minute video about our research. Please see Shared leadership builds better teams


Chiu, C., Owens, B.*, & Tesluk, P.* (2016). Initiating and utilizing shared leadership in teams: The role of leader humility, team proactive personality, and team performance capability. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101, p. 1705-1720 (A* Journal on the ABDC list)(*The two authors contribute equally)

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