Five ways leaders can cultivate a positive employee experience through intellectual humility

Lee Smith

14 November 2023
Employee Experience
Employee Engagement
Business case

I was listening to a new podcast this week called Work FORCE, from Dr Grace Lordan, author of Think Big, Take Small Steps and Build the Future You Want, and associate professor at the London School of Economics. Amongst the many themes touched on during the debut episode which asked provocatively ‘should managers be extinct?’, was the concept of ‘intellectual humility’. It’s an idea that really resonated with me, so I wanted to explore it further and share some thoughts around it here on The EX Space.

The term ‘intellectual humility’ was coined by Elizabeth Krumrei-Mancuso and her colleague Stevan Rouse of Pepperdine University in a paper published in 2016. It is broadly characterised as an individual's willingness to recognise and acknowledge the limitations of their own knowledge, understanding, and perspectives. It involves a genuine openness to learning from others, a readiness to reconsider one's beliefs in the face of new evidence, and a humble approach to intellectual pursuits.  

It’s easy to see how this would be a great trait for an EX-focused leader or manager to possess – according to the research it helps improve strategic thinking, boosts individual and team performance and fosters a more collaborative and receptive mindset, valuing diverse perspectives and contributing to personal and collective growth.   
Krumrei-Mancuso’s research highlights that employees who work for leaders with high levels of intellectual humility are likely to be more confident to share ideas, to make mistakes and to put ideas forward without fear of being ridiculed. In particular, she believes intellectual humility creates more synergy and stimulates creativity in teams.

She also found that humbler leaders score higher on tests of ‘cognitive reflection’, which measures your tendency to override your ‘gut feel’ for a situation and challenge your own assumptions. That’s important because more reflective thinkers tend to be less susceptible to cognitive bias – suggesting intellectual humility could improve people’s overall decision making.
A lot has been written in recent years about the concept of psychological safety and it’s clear to me that intellectual humility is not only closely related, but a vital component of it too.

Here are five important ways intellectual humility in leaders and managers positively impacts organisational culture:
1. Setting the tone for collaboration
Leaders who embody intellectual humility create a culture where collaboration is not just encouraged, but deeply embedded. By openly acknowledging their own limitations, they set the stage for teams to embrace diverse perspectives and learn from each other, leading to more innovative and effective solutions.

2. Navigating change
In an era of constant change, leaders with intellectual humility guide their teams with a nimble and adaptive mindset. By exemplifying a willingness to learn from others, they foster an organisational environment that is more resilient in the face of uncertainties and more accepting of change.

3. Mitigating conflict through effective communication

Leaders practicing intellectual humility tend to ask more questions, demonstrate more effective listening and foster a genuinely open, communication-rich environment. By acknowledging that they do not have all the answers, they encourage more honest dialogue among team members, reducing misunderstandings and conflict.

4. Inspiring a growth mindset
Leaders with intellectual humility foster a growth mindset within their teams. By admitting to their own ongoing learning journey, they create an environment where employees feel encouraged to experiment and supported and empowered to invest in their own professional and personal development.

5. Cultivating trust and respect
Leaders who embrace intellectual humility create a foundation of trust and respect. By demonstrating a genuine openness to learning from and listening to others and by admitting their own fallibility, they build psychological safety and inspire a culture where every team member and their contributions are valued.
Mancuso describes intellectual humility as more of a ‘state than a trait’ and points out that intellectual humility can fluctuate depending on the organisation and the context the individual is operating in.

In the pursuit of a positive employee experience, leaders play a pivotal role by exemplifying intellectual humility. By embodying this virtue, leaders set the stage for a workplace culture characterised by collaboration, adaptability, effective communication, and continuous employee development. As leaders embrace and promote intellectual humility, they create an organisational environment where trust, respect, and collective growth flourish, ultimately contributing to a more satisfying and fulfilling employee experience for all.