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The double-edged sword of leader humility: Investigating when and why leader humility promotes versus inhibits subordinate deviance

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  • Business School, University of International Business and Economics

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Extant research has uniformly demonstrated that leader humility is beneficial for subordinates, teams, and even organizations. Drawing upon attribution theory, we challenge this prevailing conclusion by identifying a potential dark side of leader humility and suggesting that leader humility can be a mixed blessing. We propose that the effects of leader humility hinge on subordinates' attributions of such humble behavior. On the one hand, when subordinates attribute leader humility in a self-serving way, leader humility is positively associated with subordinate psychological entitlement, which in turn increases workplace deviance. On the other hand, when subordinates do not attribute leader humility in a self-serving way, leader humility is positively associated with leader-member exchange, which in turn decreases workplace deviance. We found support for our hypotheses across a field study and an experiment. Taken together, our findings reveal the perils and benefits of leader humility and the importance of examining subordinate attributions in this unique leadership process. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).
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The Double-Edged Sword of Leader Humility: Investigating When and
Why Leader Humility Promotes Versus Inhibits Subordinate Deviance
Xin Qin and Chen Chen
Sun Yat-sen University
Kai Chi Yam
National University of Singapore
Mingpeng Huang
University of International Business and Economics
Dong Ju
Beijing Normal University
Extant research has uniformly demonstrated that leader humility is beneficial for subordinates, teams, and
even organizations. Drawing upon attribution theory, we challenge this prevailing conclusion by
identifying a potential dark side of leader humility and suggesting that leader humility can be a mixed
blessing. We propose that the effects of leader humility hinge on subordinates’ attributions of such
humble behavior. On the one hand, when subordinates attribute leader humility in a self-serving way,
leader humility is positively associated with subordinate psychological entitlement, which in turn
increases workplace deviance. On the other hand, when subordinates do not attribute leader humility
in a self-serving way, leader humility is positively associated with leader-member exchange, which in
turn decreases workplace deviance. We found support for our hypotheses across a field study and an
experiment. Taken together, our findings reveal the perils and benefits of leader humility and the
importance of examining subordinate attributions in this unique leadership process.
Keywords: humility, self-serving attribution, psychological entitlement, leader-member exchange, work-
place deviance
Leader humility refers to “an interpersonal characteristic that
emerges in social contexts that connotes (a) a manifested willing-
ness to view oneself accurately, (b) a displayed appreciation of
others’ strengths and contributions, and (c) teachability, or open-
ness to new ideas and feedback” (Owens, Johnson, & Mitchell,
2013, p. 1518). In the organizational sciences, there is a strongly
held consensus that leader humility is a positive leadership style
and that subordinates react positively to humble leaders by work-
ing harder and reporting higher job satisfaction (Ou et al., 2014;
Ou, Waldman, & Peterson, 2018; Owens & Hekman, 2016; Owens
et al., 2013; Rego et al., 2019). Many scholars and practitioners
have in turn encouraged managers to display “more humility and
less hubris” (Weick, 2001, p. 93). Thus, scholars and practitioners
agree that subordinates’ reactions to leader humility are univer-
sally positive—that is, manifested as a variety of positive work
outcomes.
Although research has revealed that leader humility is often
viewed and reacted positively by subordinates, we know little
about its potential drawbacks. In this research, we suggest that
leadership scholars may have overstated the benefits of leader
humility and overlooked its costs. Pfeffer (2015), for example,
argued that humility is overrated and that we rarely observe
humble leaders rise to the top. Thus, is it possible that leader
humility may lead to negative outcomes? If so, when and how does
this happen? Given the documented positive effects of leader
humility, more important and appropriate questions are, When
does leader humility lead to positive versus negative subordinate
outcomes and Why? Exploring these questions is theoretically
important because doing so challenges the prevailing consensus
regarding the universal benefits of leader humility across all indi-
viduals and contexts by investigating its potential drawbacks.
More importantly, such an exploration further reveals how the
negative effects of leader humility play out in consonance with the
positive effects by incorporating both paths into one theoretical
model. Practically, only by understanding the full nomological net
of leader humility can scholars avoid overtouting the benefits of
expressing humility to employees and provide proper practical
Xin Qin and XChen Chen, Sun Yat-sen Business School, Sun Yat-sen
University; Kai Chi Yam, Business School, National University of Singa-
pore; Mingpeng Huang, Business School, University of International Busi-
ness and Economics; Dong Ju, Business School, Beijing Normal Univer-
sity.
Xin Qin and Chen Chen contributed equally to this article.
We are indebted to all members of Nuange seminar group in the Sun
Yat-sen Business School, Sun Yat-sen University. This research was
supported by the grants funded by National Natural Science Foundation of
China (Grant 71872190, 71502179, 71702202, 71602032, and 71702175),
Guangdong Province Higher Vocational Colleges and Schools Pearl River
Scholar Funded Scheme (2018), and Fundamental Research Funds for the
Central Universities.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Chen
Chen, Sun Yat-sen Business School, Sun Yat-sen University, No. 135,
Xinggang West Road, Guangzhou, Guangdong 510275, China. E-mail:
chench28@mail.sysu.edu.cn
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Journal of Applied Psychology
© 2019 American Psychological Association 2019, Vol. 1, No. 999, 000
ISSN: 0021-9010 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000456
1
recommendations for leaders and organizations. All in all, explor-
ing these questions helps provide a more balanced view that
recognizes the perils and benefits of leader humility.
To answer these important research questions, we draw upon
attribution theory (Kelley & Michela, 1980; Martinko, Harvey, &
Douglas, 2007; Weiner, 1985) and suggest that an attributional
perspective can help us understand when positive and negative
outcomes of leader humility are likely to unfold. We suggest that
although past research has examined the direct impacts of leaders’
humble behaviors on subordinate outcomes, such an approach is
incomplete without considering subordinates’ attributions of these
behaviors because subordinates’ attitudinal and behavioral reac-
tions to the objective display of leader behavior are largely depen-
dent on how subordinates attribute these behaviors (e.g., Bowling
& Michel, 2011; Liu, Liao, & Loi, 2012; Martinko, Harvey,
Sikora, & Douglas, 2011; Schaubroeck & Shao, 2012). Indeed,
attribution theory is particularly relevant and useful for under-
standing how an otherwise positive behavior (e.g., leader humility)
may produce negative reactions in others (Lam, Huang, & Snape,
2007) and vice versa (Krakowiak & Tsay-Vogel, 2013; Reeder,
Kumar, Hesson-McInnis, & Trafimow, 2002). Accordingly, our
goal is to examine when and why leader humility promotes versus
inhibits workplace deviance, or “voluntary behavior that violates
significant organizational norms and in so doing threatens the
well-being of an organization, its members, or both” (Robinson &
Bennett, 1995, p. 556). Theoretically, workplace deviance is an
important outcome to consider because subordinates’ attributions
of leader behaviors have important implications for their deviance
(Douglas & Martinko, 2001; Martinko, Gundlach, & Douglas,
2002). Practically, deviance is a common and costly problem for
organizations (Bennett & Robinson, 2000).
According to attribution theory (Kelley & Michela, 1980; Mar-
tinko et al., 2007; Weiner, 1985), subordinates form their own
interpretations of why their supervisors treat them in a specific
way (e.g., expressing humility), and these interpretations will
affect their subsequent attitudinal and behavioral responses to such
treatment (Leung, Su, & Morris, 2001; Liu et al., 2012). Impor-
tantly, the attribution literature suggests that the way individuals
make attributions of others’ behaviors determines how these be-
haviors affect both individuals’ internal psychological states and
external relationships with others (Elangovan, Auer-Rizzi, &
Szabo, 2007; Gardner, Karam, Tribble, & Cogliser, 2019; Lam et
al., 2007). In particular, we suggest that leader humility can lead to
both increased psychological entitlement (i.e., a momentary sense
that one deserves special or unique treatment relative to his or her
peers; Campbell, Bonacci, Shelton, Exline, & Bushman, 2004;
Vincent & Kouchaki, 2016) and leader-member exchange (LMX;
Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995) and that self-serving attribution of leader
humility helps reconcile these seemingly incompatible effects of
leader humility.
Self-serving attribution of leader humility is defined as the
extent to which subordinates attribute leader expressed humility in
a self-serving way (e.g., “My strengths and contributions make my
leader treat me humbly”; Dasborough & Ashkanasy, 2002; Mar-
tinko & Gardner, 1987). When subordinates engage in high levels
of self-serving attribution, they believe leaders treat them humbly
because they are unique and deserve such treatment. Self-serving
attribution is important to understanding the effects of leader
humility because when it is high [low], it will likely lead to
negative [positive] outcomes of leader humility. We suggest that
when subordinate self-serving attribution of leader humility is
high, leader-expressed humility is more likely to induce subordi-
nates’ inflated perceptions of self-capabilities and self-worth, lead-
ing to high levels of psychological entitlement (Campbell et al.,
2004; Vincent & Kouchaki, 2016), which further triggers subor-
dinate workplace deviance. In contrast, when subordinate self-
serving attribution of leader humility is low, leader expressed
humility is more likely to be valued by subordinates in the rela-
tional exchange process and thus increase LMX, which in turn
reduces subordinate workplace deviance. Taken together, we sug-
gest that leader humility can be conceptualized as a mixed blessing
with differential impacts on subordinate deviance via two distinct
pathways contingent upon subordinate self-serving attribution of
such humble behavior (see Figure 1).
This research makes several important theoretical contributions
to the extant literatures on leader humility and attribution. First, by
exploring subordinate self-serving attribution of leader humility as
a key boundary condition of the effects of leader humility, we
challenge the prevailing consensus regarding the universally pos-
itive effects of leader humility (Ou et al., 2014; Owens et al., 2013)
and further offer a framework to understand when leader humility
can promote versus inhibit subordinate deviance. Our work thus
offers a more balanced and dialectical perspective in understand-
ing the effects of leader humility. Second, we further examine the
underlying mechanisms that drive these two distinct pathways (i.e.,
subordinate psychological entitlement and LMX). Examining the
Figure 1. Theoretical model of the current research.
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2QIN, CHEN, YAM, HUANG, AND JU
underlying mechanisms is particularly important because doing so
is a principal component of building and testing organizational
theory (Colquitt & Zapata-Phelan, 2007). Finally, despite multiple
calls, attribution theory has been underused in the organizational
sciences (Martinko, Harvey, & Dasborough, 2011). We answer
these calls and apply an attributional perspective to leader humil-
ity. Specifically, although extant research has tended to explore
leaders’ attributions of subordinates’ behaviors (Green & Mitchell,
1979), we answer Martinko, Harvey, and Dasborough’s (2011) call
for more research exploring subordinates’ attributions of leaders’
behaviors.
Theoretical Grounding and Hypothesis Development
Attribution theory proposes that people are innately motivated
to interpret others’ behaviors in terms of their causes so as to make
sense of their surroundings (Kelley, 1973; Kelley & Michela,
1980; Weiner, 1985). In the extant leadership literature, attribution
theory has often been used to explain how leaders’ attributions of
their subordinates’ behaviors influence leaders’ attitudes and be-
haviors toward subordinates (for reviews, see Martinko, Harvey, &
Dasborough, 2011; Martinko et al., 2007). For example, Lam et al.
(2007) found that subordinates’ feedback-seeking behavior posi-
tively influenced leaders’ ratings of their performance only when
leaders attributed such behavior as being driven by performance-
enhancement motives rather than impression-management mo-
tives.
However, the relationship between a leader and a subordinate is
inherently dyadic (Dasborough & Ashkanasy, 2002). As such,
subordinates also attribute leaders’ expressed behaviors. As the
recipients of leader behaviors, subordinates typically use supervi-
sors’ observable behaviors to infer about why their supervisors
treat them in a specific way. As shown by previous research (Liu
et al., 2012; Martinko et al., 2007), subordinates’ attributions of
their leaders’ behaviors are likely to affect their reactions to
leaders’ behaviors. For example, Dasborough and Ashkanasy
(2002) suggested that leadership effectiveness was often moder-
ated by perceived leader motives such that subordinates rated
leaders as more effective when they attributed leaders’ behaviors
as being altruistic rather than instrumental. As such, it is theoret-
ically meaningful to examine how subordinates’ specific attribu-
tions of leader humility moderate the relationship between leader
humility and subordinate outcomes. Accordingly, in this research,
we focus on the interactive effect of expressed leader humility and
subordinate self-serving attribution of leader humility on subordi-
nate attitudinal and behavioral work outcomes.
Leader Humility and Subordinate Attributions
Humility has three major components: (a) a willingness to view
oneself accurately and acknowledge personal limits, faults, and
mistakes; (b) an appreciation of others’ strengths and contribu-
tions; and (c) teachability, or openness to new ideas and feedback
(Owens et al., 2013). From subordinates’ perspective, receiving
humble leader treatment constitutes a positive experience. Decades
of research on attribution theory (Kelley & Michela, 1980; Mezu-
lis, Abramson, Hyde, & Hankin, 2004) has suggested that when
experiencing positive events, individuals are much more likely to
attribute the cause to themselves (i.e., self-serving attribution)
rather than to the person who delivers this positive treatment or to
the context. Consider an employee who just received a promotion.
He or she would most likely attribute the positive event to himself
or herself (e.g., “I’ve worked hard”) rather than attributing it to his
or her supervisor (e.g., “My supervisor helped me achieve this
feat”). It is even more unlikely that this employee would attribute
his or her promotion to contextual factors (e.g., “I received this
promotion because most of my colleagues are incompetent”) be-
cause both other- and context-serving attributions do not lead to
self-enhancement. Given that people have a constant need to
enhance their self-conceptualizations, the attribution (e.g., Miller
& Ross, 1975) and self-enhancement (e.g., Swann, Griffin, Pred-
more, & Gaines, 1987; Swann, Pelham, & Krull, 1989) literatures
together would predict that self-serving attribution should be the
most likely response to leaders’ humble behaviors (or any other
form of positive treatment received from others). Our exclusive
focus on self-serving attribution is also supported by a prior
meta-analysis on attribution: Mezulis et al. (2004) found that
people experience a strong bias to attribute positive events to
themselves and neglect other types of attribution that might have
contributed to these positive events. When self-serving attribution
of leader humility is high, subordinates are likely to interpret such
leader behaviors as indications of their own excellence, strengths,
uniqueness, and contributions at work (e.g., “My leader behaves
humbly because I do a terrific job and make a unique contribu-
tion”).
The Interactive Effect of Leader Humility and
Subordinate Self-Serving Attribution on
Psychological Entitlement
We argue that when subordinates attribute leaders’ humble
treatment to themselves—that is, in a high self-serving manner—
leader-expressed humility may induce subordinates’ inflated per-
ceptions of the self and lead to psychological entitlement (Harvey
& Martinko, 2009). Whereas a handful of studies have treated
psychological entitlement as a stable trait-like construct (e.g.,
Harvey & Martinko, 2009; Snow, Kern, & Curlette, 2001), more
recent psychological and management research has started to con-
ceptualize it as a state-like construct with momentary fluctuations
(e.g., Vincent & Kouchaki, 2016; Yam, Klotz, He, & Reynolds,
2017; Zitek, Jordan, Monin, & Leach, 2010). To reflect its state-
like nature, we define entitlement as a momentary sense that one
deserves special or unique treatment relative to their peers.
1
In particular, we suggest that when subordinates make a high
self-serving attribution of leader humility, such expressed humility
likely induces subordinate psychological entitlement. The leader
humility literature suggests that leader humility is expressed in
three ways. First, humble leaders acknowledge personal limita-
tions in front of their subordinates and admit when their subordi-
nates are more knowledgeable than them (Morris, Brotheridge, &
1
Although psychological entitlement and self-serving attribution are
somewhat similar in that they are both related to ones’ positive self-views,
they are conceptually different. One main difference is that they represent
different aspects of perceptions. Specifically, self-serving attribution of
leader humility describes subordinates’ perceptions of others’ (i.e., lead-
ers’) behaviors, whereas entitlement represents individuals’ perceptions of
themselves (Harvey & Dasborough, 2015).
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3
THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD OF LEADER HUMILITY
Urbanski, 2005; Owens et al., 2013). When their leaders treat them
humbly, subordinates who make a high self-serving attribution are
likely to interpret this humble treatment as a result of their own
superiority (e.g., they are more capable than their leaders in terms
of skills and knowledge; Mezulis et al., 2004). As such, these
subordinates likely experience inflated perceptions of self-
capabilities, which induce higher levels of psychological entitle-
ment (Farwell & Wohlwend-Lloyd, 1998; Graffin, Bundy, Porac,
Wade, & Quinn, 2013).
Second, humble leaders tend to compliment subordinates’
strengths and express appreciation for subordinates’ unique con-
tributions at work (Owens et al., 2013). That is, subordinates
supervised by humble leaders receive more praise and appreciation
for their strengths and contributions, and their shining points are
likely to be spotlighted and amplified. For subordinates who make
a high self-serving attribution, such appreciation and compliments
help them pinpoint their strengths and unique contributions and
lead them to a self-enhancement process. In this case, subordinates
are more likely to believe they make contributions to their orga-
nizations that others cannot. In turn, these amplified perceptions of
self-worth likely bring about a sense of entitlement (Harvey &
Harris, 2010).
Third, humble leaders often show openness to others’ feedback
and new ideas (Morris et al., 2005; Tangney, 2009). In particular,
humble leaders are willing to seek feedback, ideas, and help from
their subordinates (Owens et al., 2013). Subordinates who interpret
their leaders’ advice seeking in a self-serving manner are likely to
believe they are more knowledgeable and competent at work than
their leaders. Such exaggerated perceptions of their self-
capabilities likely make subordinates believe they deserve more—
that is, they likely have a higher level of entitlement (Harvey &
Martinko, 2009).
In contrast, subordinates who make a low self-serving attribu-
tion of leader humility are less likely to attribute their leaders’
humble treatment to their own strengths, uniqueness, and deserv-
edness. As a result, they are less likely to experience exaggerated
perceptions of their self-capabilities or self-worth and are thus less
likely to feel entitled when leaders treat them humbly. Based on
these arguments, we propose the following:
Hypothesis 1: Leader humility and subordinate self-serving
attribution will interact to influence subordinate psychological
entitlement such that the relationship will be positive when
subordinate self-serving attribution is high and will not exist
when subordinate self-serving attribution is low.
Psychological Entitlement and Workplace Deviance
We further argue that subordinate psychological entitlement
triggered by leader humility will be positively related to subordi-
nate workplace deviance. Entitlement is associated with inflated
perceptions of the self and unrealistic expectations in terms of
compensation and rewards. These inflated self-views and unreal-
istic expectations for preferential treatment often cause skewed
notions of reciprocity, leading to negative responses in return
(Jordan, Ramsay, & Westerlaken, 2017; Naumann, Minsky, &
Sturman, 2002).
Theoretically, Huseman, Hatfield, and Miles (1987) proposed
that the consequences of a momentary sense of entitlement can be
conceptualized through the lens of equity theory (Adams, 1965).
Whereas employees are generally equity sensitive and expect a fair
outcome-to-input ratio at work, a momentary sense of entitlement
can disrupt this process. Individuals with a momentary sense of
psychological entitlement insist on a higher outcome-to-input ratio
than others and believe they deserve a larger “piece of the pie”
regardless of their actual performance, effort, and contributions to
their organization (Miller, 2009). Thus, when such inflated expec-
tations are not satisfied, deviant behavior—manifested as bad
deeds targeting the organization (e.g., harming the organization’s
image) or organizational members (e.g., incivility and aggres-
sion)—is often a natural response to offset these unmet needs
(Campbell et al., 2004; Yam et al., 2017). It is important to note
that these deviant responses are not driven purely by self-interest,
as with many forms of unethical behavior (Treviño, Weaver, &
Reynolds, 2006). Entitled employees act in deviant ways because
they truly believe they are owed, and their actions are simply their
way to “get even” with their organization and its members. To
them, deviant behaviors are considered fair responses to their work
outputs although these outputs are highly inflated by their sense of
entitlement. For example, dragging out work to get overtime
compensation, a behavior often considered organizational devi-
ance, is one tactic employees with a momentary sense of entitle-
ment use to receive compensation (they believe is) owed to them.
Likewise, publicly embarrassing coworkers can offset a momen-
tary sense of entitlement because entitled individuals believe co-
workers do not put in their fair share of work and thus deserve such
treatment. In line with these arguments, previous research has
shown that individuals with high entitlement perceptions are more
likely to put their own needs ahead of others (Harvey & Martinko,
2009), act selfishly (Zitek et al., 2010), and engage in unethical
and deviant behaviors (Levine, 2005; Rosenthal & Pittinsky, 2006;
Vincent & Kouchaki, 2016).
In sum, combining these arguments with the proposed interac-
tive effect of leader humility and subordinate self-serving attribu-
tion on subordinate psychological entitlement, we put forth our
second hypothesis:
Hypothesis 2: Subordinate psychological entitlement will me-
diate the interactive effect of leader humility and subordinate
self-serving attribution on subordinate workplace deviance
such that the indirect effect will be positive when subordinate
self-serving attribution is high and will not exist when subor-
dinate self-serving attribution is low.
The Interactive Effect of Leader Humility and
Subordinate Self-Serving Attribution on LMX
Drawing on the humility literature (Owens et al., 2013) and
attribution theory (Kelley & Michela, 1980; Martinko et al., 2007;
Weiner, 1985), we suggest that leader humility can also lead to
increased LMX overall, especially when subordinates attribute
leader humility in a low self-serving manner. Research on attribu-
tion theory and LMX has argued that the way in which employees
attribute leader behaviors largely affects the development and
quality of LMX (Dasborough & Ashkanasy, 2002; Dienesch &
Liden, 1986). For example, although transformational leadership
generally leads to higher LMX, when a subordinate attributes this
behavior to “a manipulative effort to benefit the leader himself or
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4QIN, CHEN, YAM, HUANG, AND JU
herself,” such attribution attenuates the positive impact of trans-
formational leadership on LMX (Dasborough & Ashkanasy,
2002).
LMX theory posits that a dyadic relationship between leaders
and subordinates develops over time through a series of exchange
processes, especially the role-making process, in which both par-
ties test each other based on certain role expectations (Bauer &
Green, 1996; Graen & Cashman, 1975). Prior research has sug-
gested that subordinates often expect supervisors to have positive
interpersonal interactions with them (Maslyn & Uhl-Bien, 2001)
and to “share mutual understanding with them, provide them with
learning and developmental opportunities, and [be] friendly”
(Huang, Wright, Chiu, & Wang, 2008, p. 279). When these ex-
pectations are met, high-quality LMX is likely to form. Humble
leaders tend to disclose their personal limits and acknowledge
mistakes, show recognition and appreciation for subordinates’
strengths and contributions, and behave as role models of learning
(Owens & Hekman, 2012). From the subordinates’ perspective,
such humble treatment, viewed as rewards and favors from their
supervisors, is likely to fulfill their expectations for sharing mutual
understanding, feeling respected and valued, and receiving learn-
ing and developmental opportunities (Bauer & Green, 1996),
which in turn benefit LMX.
Although leader humility should generally lead to higher LMX,
subordinate self-serving attribution of leader humility likely mod-
erates this link because self-serving attribution can lower the
perceived value of leader humility. LMX theory posits that “a
high-quality LMX relationship is based on social exchange, mean-
ing that the leader and member must contribute resources valued
by the other party” (Liden, Sparrowe, & Wayne, 1997, p. 50).
Accordingly, whether a leader’s expressed humility toward a sub-
ordinate leads to improved LMX depends on the extent to which
the subordinate values the leader’s humble treatment. We further
argue that subordinate self-serving attribution will affect the extent
to which they value leaders’ humble treatment, thereby impacting
the extent to which leader humility increases LMX.
Specifically, when subordinates make a low self-serving attri-
bution (i.e., not attributing their leaders’ humble treatment to their
own strengths or contributions), they are likely to perceive that
they did not earn such positive treatment due to their own strengths
or contributions. As a result, they are more likely to value leaders’
humble treatment and view it as a special reward and recognition,
meeting and even going beyond their expectations. Consequently,
they are more likely to like and trust their leaders and react in
positive ways, such as working hard to meet their leaders’ expec-
tations (Settoon, Bennett, & Liden, 1996; Wayne, Shore, & Liden,
1997). Such positive reactions facilitate positive interactions be-
tween subordinates and their leaders, leading to high levels of
LMX.
In contrast, when subordinates make a high self-serving attri-
bution (i.e., attributing their leaders’ humble treatment to their own
strengths or contributions), they are likely to believe that they have
earned such treatment with their own strengths or contributions. In
this case, they are less likely to value humble treatment and might
view it as an “expected” recognition. Thus, although this high
self-serving attribution process may lead subordinates to feel good
about themselves, it is unlikely to help form positive exchange
relationships with their leaders. In sum, when subordinates make a
high self-serving attribution, leader humility is less likely to facil-
itate the positive leader-member interactions necessary for high-
quality LMX. Based on these arguments, we propose the following
hypothesis:
Hypothesis 3: Leader humility and subordinate self-serving
attribution will interact to influence subordinate LMX such
that the relationship will be positive when subordinate self-
serving attribution is low and will be weaker when subordi-
nate self-serving attribution is high.
LMX and Workplace Deviance
LMX has been identified as a critical mediator in the relation-
ship between leader behaviors and subordinate work outcomes
(Dulebohn, Bommer, Liden, Brouer, & Ferris, 2012; Little, Gooty,
& Williams, 2016). In this section, we suggest that heightened
LMX resulting from the interaction between leader humility and
low self-serving attribution can reduce subordinate workplace de-
viance.
LMX is one of the most critical and relevant factors that can
inhibit subordinate workplace deviance (Martin, Guillaume,
Thomas, Lee, & Epitropaki, 2016). According to social exchange
theory, reciprocity is a core belief between a leader and a subor-
dinate (Cropanzano & Mitchell, 2005). When subordinates per-
ceive high-quality LMX, they often feel they are trusted and liked
by their leaders (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995; Venkataramani, Green,
& Schleicher, 2010). In response to high LMX, subordinates often
work harder and engage in less deviance (El Akremi, Vandenber-
ghe, & Camerman, 2010; Gerstner & Day, 1997). Supporting this
rationale, prior meta-analytic research has shown that LMX is
negatively associated with subordinate workplace deviance (Mar-
tin et al., 2016). Therefore, we propose the following hypothesis:
Hypothesis 4: Subordinate LMX will mediate the interactive
effect of leader humility and subordinate self-serving attribu-
tion on subordinate workplace deviance such that the indirect
effect will be negative when subordinate self-serving attribu-
tion is low and will be weaker when subordinate self-serving
attribution is high.
Overview of the Current Research
To test our theoretical model, we conducted two studies, includ-
ing a multiwave field study (i.e., Study 1) and an experimental
study (i.e., Study 2). In Study 1, we used a multiwave design to test
our full model (Hypotheses 1– 4) in a field setting to maximize
external validity. To further boost causal inferences, in Study 2, we
experimentally examined the interactive effect of leader humility
and subordinate self-serving attribution on subordinate psycholog-
ical entitlement (i.e., Hypothesis 1) and LMX (i.e., Hypothesis 3),
our two key hypotheses. This multimethod design (i.e., field and
experimental studies) helps establish the internal and external
validity of our findings (Ju et al., 2019; Qin, Ren, Zhang, &
Johnson, 2015).
Study 1 Method
Participants and Procedure
We collected three waves of data through the alumni networks
of several large universities in China. A total of 349 full-time
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5
THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD OF LEADER HUMILITY
employees were invited to participate in this research. All surveys
were sent via WeChat, a multipurpose messaging application with
more than one billion active users (see Qin, Huang, Johnson, Hu,
& Ju, 2018, for a recent study that used WeChat for data collec-
tion). Also, identification codes were used to match participants’
survey responses across the three waves to ensure confidentiality.
Each of the three waves was separated by 2 weeks. At Time 1
(T1), participants completed measures of leader humility and self-
serving attribution of leader humility and reported demographic
information. At T2, participants completed measures of psycho-
logical entitlement and LMX. At T3, participants reported work-
place deviance. We retained a final sample of 275 employees (for
a response rate of 78.8%, 58.6% female, M
age
31.1 years,
M
tenure
4.6 years, M
dyadic tenure
3.1 years) after matching the
three waves of data. Participants worked in a variety of industries,
including manufacturing (32%), service (15%), banking and infor-
mation technology (19%), and others (34%). Our response analy-
ses revealed that individuals in our final sample of 275 employees
were not significantly different in terms of these demographics
from those who were dropped from the analyses (ps.10).
2
Measures
We followed Brislin’s (1980) translation– back translation pro-
cedure to translate all English scales into Mandarin Chinese in
Studies 1 and 2. Unless otherwise specified, all measures for the
two studies (see Appendix A for all items) were rated using a
five-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree)to
5(strongly agree).
Leader humility (T1). Employees rated their leader’s humil-
ity with the adapted nine-item humility scale developed by Owens
et al. (2013) (␣⫽.90).
Self-serving attribution of leader humility (T1). Because
there are no readily available measures of subordinate self-serving
attribution of leader humility, in line with previous studies (e.g.,
Qin, Ren, Zhang, & Johnson, 2018), we developed and validated
the self-serving attribution measure following Hinkin’s scale-
development procedure (1998). Specifically, we first drew from
the humility (e.g., Owens et al., 2013) and attribution literatures
(e.g., Kelley & Michela, 1980; Lam et al., 2007; Rodell & Lynch,
2016; Weiner, 1985) and generated six items for self-serving
attribution of leader humility. Then, we recruited 13 subject matter
experts (eight professors and five PhD candidates in organizational
behavior) to assess the extent to which these items matched the
definitions on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (Item is an extremely
bad match)to5(Item is an extremely good match). The mean
scores (i.e., 4.6) compared favorably to those in other studies using
this procedure (e.g., average ratings greater than 4.0; Rodell,
2013). Interrater agreement (r
wg
; James, Demaree, & Wolf, 1984)
among the experts was .82. Furthermore, we evaluated the factor
structure of this measure.
3
We recruited 117 employees from
MTurk (58.1% female, M
age
33.5 years, M
tenure
6.9 years)
and conducted a confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) to test the
factor structure of the measure for subordinate self-serving attri-
bution of leader humility. The results showed that the single-factor
model had a great fit,
2
(9) 15.37, p.01; standardized root
mean-square residual (SRMR) .05, root mean square error of
approximation (RMSEA) .08, comparative fit index (CFI)
.97, Tucker-Lewis index (TLI) .94. Thus, these findings provide
strong evidence supporting the reliability and validity of our mea-
sure of self-serving attribution of leader humility.
Following prior attribution studies (e.g., Allen & Rush, 1998;
Liu et al., 2012), when administering these scales, we first gave
participants a definition of leader humility and listed several pro-
totypically humble behaviors. We then asked, “Most supervisors
have expressed some forms of humble behaviors toward their
subordinates more or less. Why do you think your supervisor
expresses such behaviors toward you?” All items are listed in
Appendix A (␣⫽.76).
Subordinate psychological entitlement (T2). We measured
subordinate psychological entitlement using the nine-item scale
developed by Campbell et al. (2004). This scale has been used
extensively to capture state psychological entitlement in the man-
agement literature (e.g., Vincent & Kouchaki, 2016; Yam et al.,
2017; ␣⫽.90).
Subordinate leader-member exchange (T2). We measured
LMX using Graen and Uhl-Bien’s (1995) seven-item LMX scale
(␣⫽.83).
Subordinate workplace deviance (T3). We measured subor-
dinate workplace deviance using the short 10-item deviance scale
developed by Spector and colleagues (2006). We used a self-
reported measure of deviance because many deviant behaviors are
done in private without others’ knowledge. Moreover, a meta-
analysis demonstrated that both self- and other-reports of deviance
capture the essence of this construct (Berry, Ones, & Sackett,
2007), and the use of self-reported deviance is relatively common
in the literature (e.g., Mitchell & Ambrose, 2007; Owens, Yam,
Bednar, Mao, & Hart, 2019; Yam, Christian, Wei, Liao, & Nai,
2018; 1 never,5always;␣⫽.86).
Control variables. We controlled for participants’ demo-
graphics, including gender, age, years of education, and dyadic
tenure, because they are related to subordinate workplace deviance
(Berry et al., 2007). We controlled for gender because men and
women differ in moral sensitivity and orientation (Ambrose &
Schminke, 1999), and men tend to engage in more deviant behav-
ior (Gonzalez-Mulé, DeGeest, Kiersch, & Mount, 2013; Khazan-
chi, 1995). We also controlled for age, years of education, and
dyadic tenure because these characteristics affect individuals’
moral reasoning and (un)ethical behaviors (Loe, Ferrell, & Mans-
field, 2000). For example, individuals’ level of formal education
influences their perceptions of deviant behavior (Deshpande,
1997), and individuals with high levels of education tend to have
higher levels of moral judgment (Rest & Thoma, 1985), which
may in turn influence their workplace deviance. Furthermore,
because negative affect has also been found to promote workplace
deviance (Dalal, Lam, Weiss, Welch, & Hulin, 2009; Spector,
Bauer, & Fox, 2010), we controlled for participants’ negative
2
In both studies, we complied with American Psychological Associa-
tion’s ethical guidelines and common institutional review board (IRB)
standards regarding data collection procedures, even though the Chinese
institutions that employ the authors in charge of data collection did not
have an IRB. In particular, participants’ confidentiality was guaranteed
throughout the entire data collection processes, and participants were
allowed to withdraw from the study at any given time.
3
We also evaluated the criterion-related validity of this measure (de-
tailed results are available from the authors upon request).
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6QIN, CHEN, YAM, HUANG, AND JU
affect using five items developed by Mackinnon and colleagues
(1999; ␣⫽.85).
Analytic Strategy
We used ordinary least squares (OLS) to test our hypotheses. To
reduce collinearity, all explanatory variables were grand-mean
centered (Hofmann & Gavin, 1998). To test the moderated medi-
ation hypotheses, we adopted the Monte Carlo simulation (Selig &
Preacher, 2008) and constructed confidence intervals (CIs) to test
the indirect effects at high (1 SD above) and low (1 SD below)
levels of the moderator (Edwards & Lambert, 2007).
Study 1 Results
Descriptive statistics and correlations are presented in Table 1.
Prior to hypothesis testing, we first conducted a set of CFAs to
ensure that our key constructs (i.e., leader humility, subordinate
self-serving attribution, subordinate psychological entitlement,
LMX, and subordinate workplace deviance) had satisfactory dis-
criminant validity. Because we are concerned with the distinctive-
ness of the measured constructs rather than the interrelationships
of our items within constructs, parceling is theoretically appropri-
ate (Little, Rhemtulla, Gibson, & Schoemann, 2013). Empirically,
scales with many items can decrease the sample size to estimated
parameter ratio (Sass & Smith, 2006; Williams, Vandenberg, &
Edwards, 2009), which “can cause parameter instability related to
the presence of multiple solutions, correlated residuals and cross-
loadings, and increased standard errors, especially in a small
sample” (Grant & Berry, 2011, p. 84; also see Little, Cunningham,
Shahar, & Widaman, 2002). Thus, item parceling can help achieve
an optimal ratio of sample size to number of estimated indicators
in CFAs (Little et al., 2002; Sun & van Emmerik, 2015). In line
with previous research (e.g., Grant & Berry, 2011; Ou et al., 2014),
we used dimensional scores whenever appropriate and generated
theoretically driven parcels. Specifically, we used dimensional
scores to generate two parcels for workplace deviance and three
parcels each for leader humility and self-serving attribution. We
generated three parcels each for psychological entitlement and
LMX using the item-to-construct-balance method (Little et al.,
2002; Williams et al., 2009). The hypothesized five-factor model.
2
(67) 107.09, p.01; SRMR .04, RMSEA .05, CFI
.98, TLI .97, fit the data better than any of the four-factor
models (see Table 2).
We conducted a set of OLS regressions to test our hypotheses.
As shown in Model 3 in Table 3, the interaction term of leader
humility and subordinate self-serving attribution in predicting sub-
ordinate psychological entitlement was significant (b.28, p
.01). As presented in Figure 2, simple slope tests confirmed that
the relationship between leader humility and subordinate psycho-
logical entitlement was significant and positive when subordinate
self-serving attribution was high (b.22, t3.69, p.01) but
was not significant when subordinate self-serving attribution was
low (b⫽⫺.06, t⫽⫺1.12, p.26). Therefore, Hypothesis 1 was
supported.
Reported in Table 4 are the results for the predictors of subor-
dinate workplace deviance. The Monte Carlo results showed that
the indirect effect of leader humility on subordinate workplace
deviance via subordinate psychological entitlement was significant
when subordinate self-serving attribution was high (estimate
.04, 95% confidence interval [CI] [.01, .08]) but was not signifi-
cant when subordinate self-serving attribution was low (esti-
mate ⫽⫺.01, 95% CI [.04, .01]). The difference between these
indirect effects was also significant (b.05, 95% CI [.02, .10]).
Thus, Hypothesis 2 was supported.
As shown in Model 3 in Table 5, the interaction term of leader
humility and subordinate self-serving attribution in predicting
LMX was significant (b⫽⫺.28, p.01). As depicted in Figure
3, simple slopes tests revealed that the relationship between leader
humility and LMX was significant and positive when subordinate
self-serving attribution was low (b.40, t8.00, p.001) but
was significantly weaker when subordinate self-serving attribution
was high (b.11, t2.17, p.05). Thus, Hypothesis 3 was
supported.
The Monte Carlo results showed that the indirect effect of leader
humility on subordinate workplace deviance via LMX was signif-
icant when subordinate self-serving attribution was low (esti-
mate ⫽⫺.08, 95% CI [.14, .04]). Although the indirect effect
was also significant when subordinate self-serving attribution was
high, it was significantly weaker (estimate ⫽⫺.02, 95% CI
[.05, .0001]), and the difference between these indirect effects
was also significant (b.06, 95% CI [.02, .11]). Thus, Hypoth-
Table 1
Descriptive Statistics and Correlations in Study 1
Variable MSD 123456789
1. Subordinate gender (T1) .41 .49
2. Subordinate age (T1) 31.15 5.27 .13
3. Subordinate education (T1) 16.64 1.23 .04 .05
4. Dyadic tenure (T1) 3.11 3.40 .19
ⴱⴱ
.41
ⴱⴱ
.10
5. Subordinate negative affect (T1) 2.44 .70 .00 .05 .06 .02
6. Leader humility (T1) 3.39 .69 .07 .04 .07 .06 .21
ⴱⴱ
7. Subordinate self-serving attribution (T1) 3.35 .51 .05 .08 .24
ⴱⴱ
.04 .02 .14
8. Subordinate psychological entitlement (T2) 3.13 .55 .02 .14
.11
.03 .02 .10 .26
ⴱⴱ
9. Subordinate leader-member exchange (T2) 3.34 .50 .05 .13
.08 .14
.12
.37
ⴱⴱ
.15
.19
ⴱⴱ
10. Subordinate workplace deviance (T3) 1.51 .43 .11
.00 .05 .01 .27
ⴱⴱ
.09 .05 .17
ⴱⴱ
.22
ⴱⴱ
Note. n 275. For subordinate gender, 0 female; 1 male. T1/2/3 Time 1/2/3.
p.10.
p.05.
ⴱⴱ
p.01.
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7
THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD OF LEADER HUMILITY
esis 4 was supported. Finally, for presentational parsimony, we
also presented all results in a path model (see Figure 4).
4
Study 1 tested the interactive effects of leader humility and
self-serving attribution of leader humility on subordinate psycho-
logical entitlement, LMX, and workplace deviance. Although
high in external validity, Study 1 was correlational in nature,
thus limiting our ability to make causal inferences. We con-
ducted a controlled experiment (i.e., Study 2) to address this
limitation and to test our two key interaction hypotheses (i.e.,
Hypotheses 1 and 3).
Study 2 Method
Participants
We recruited 161 full-time working adults from the authors’
alumni networks in China (49.7% female, M
age
31.9 years,
M
education
16.6 years, M
tenure
5.0 years, M
dyadic tenure
3.1
years). Participants did not physically come to the lab; rather, we
sent them a link to the online study. Also, we instructed partici-
pants to complete the experiment using a computer since the task
required them to type a short essay. Participants worked in a
variety of industries, including manufacturing (23%), service
(5%), real estate (16%), information technology (11%), and others
(35%).
Procedure and Experimental Design
We manipulated both leader humility and self-serving attribu-
tion of leader humility, resulting in a 2 (leader humility: humble
vs. neutral) 2 (self-serving attribution: high vs. low) factorial
design. We randomly assigned participants to one of the four
experimental conditions. To manipulate leader humility, we in-
structed participants to recall and write about a recent interaction
with their supervisor. Then, we presented the self-serving attribu-
tion of leader humility manipulation. In line with prior studies
(e.g., Mayer, Thau, Workman, Van Dijke, & De Cremer, 2012),
participants were then required to complete an ostensibly unrelated
filler task (i.e., describing what they usually do on the weekend).
After that, participants completed measures of psychological en-
titlement, LMX, and manipulation checks, and reported demo-
graphic information.
Leader humility manipulation. To manipulate leader humil-
ity, we instructed participants to recall an episode in which they
proposed some ideas and suggestions to their current supervisor
and their supervisor responded in either a humble or a neutral way.
In the instructions, we provided participants with some sample
leader responses to aid their recall. These sample responses were
adapted based on the definition of leader humility and Owens and
Hekman’s (2016) recent experimental research on leader humility.
A sample response in the humble leader condition is, “Your
supervisor acknowledged that you had more knowledge and skills
than him or her.” As for the sample responses in the control
condition, we revised Owens and Hekman’s (2016) control-
condition scripts to some extent to make them more neutral. An
adapted sample response in the control condition is “Your super-
visor provided some feedback to your ideas” (Appendix B; see
Appendix C for sample stories written by participants across the
conditions). Critically, respondents were instructed to describe
their leader’s behavior toward them rather than their views about
the event.
Self-serving attribution of leader humility manipulation.
After the first recall task, participants were instructed to read a
short statement designed to manipulate self-serving attribution of
leader humility (for similar research designs, see Qin, Huang, Hu,
Schminke, & Ju, 2018; Skarlicki & Rupp, 2010; Zhong, 2011).
Specifically, in the high self-serving attribution condition, partic-
ipants read the following statement:
Research shows that when interacting with subordinates, supervisors
sometimes express humility toward subordinates, such as actively
seeking feedback even if it is critical; acknowledging when subordi-
nates have more knowledge and skills than themselves; and being
open to subordinates’ ideas and advice. There has been a long debate
about why supervisors engage in these humble behaviors toward
subordinates. A new research study conducted in both the United
States and China with thousands of participants in multiple organiza-
tions has provided support to the conclusion that supervisors’ humble
behavior is often a result of subordinates’ factors. That is, supervisors
engage in humble behaviors because of their subordinates’ strengths
and abilities.
4
We also ran analyses without the control variables (see Becker, 2005),
and all hypotheses remained supported. The interaction term between
leader humility and self-serving attribution in predicting psychological
entitlement (b.28, p.01) and LMX (b⫽⫺.28, p.01) remained
significant. Psychological entitlement (b.19, p.01) and LMX
(b⫽⫺.23, p.01) were again significantly related to workplace deviance
(detailed results are available from the authors upon request).
Table 2
Model Fit Results for Confirmatory Factor Analyses in Study 1
Models
2
df ⌬␹
2
/df SRMR RMSEA CFI TLI
Hypothesized five-factor model 107.09 67 .04 .05 .98 .97
Four-factor model—combining subordinate self-serving
attribution and subordinate psychological entitlement 269.11 71 162.02/4
ⴱⴱⴱ
.09 .10 .88 .85
Four-factor model—combining leader humility and
subordinate psychological entitlement 589.23 71 482.14/4
ⴱⴱⴱ
.14 .16 .69 .60
Four-factor model—combining subordinate
psychological entitlement and workplace deviance 279.58 71 172.49/4
ⴱⴱⴱ
.09 .10 .87 .84
Note.⌬⫽change relative to the measurement model; CFI comparative fit index; TLI Tucker-Lewis index; RMSEA root mean squared error of
approximation; SRMR standardized root mean-square residual.
ⴱⴱⴱ
p.001.
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8QIN, CHEN, YAM, HUANG, AND JU
According to this study, when your supervisor treats you humbly, you
should attribute this to your own factors (e.g., unique skills and
contributions).
In the low self-serving attribution condition, participants read
the following instruction:
Research shows that when interacting with subordinates, supervisors
sometimes express humility toward subordinates, such as actively
seeking feedback even if it is critical; acknowledging when subordi-
nates have more knowledge and skills than themselves; and being
open to subordinates’ ideas and advice. There has been a long debate
about why supervisors engage in these humble behaviors toward
subordinates. A new research study conducted in both the United
States and China with thousands of participants in multiple organiza-
tions has ruled out the idea that supervisors engage in humble behav-
iors because of their subordinates’ factors. That is, supervisors engage
in humble behaviors not because of their subordinates’ strengths and
abilities.
According to this study, when your supervisor treats you humbly, you
should not attribute this to your own factors (e.g., unique skills and
contributions).
Measures
Subordinate psychological entitlement. We measured sub-
ordinate psychological entitlement using Campbell et al.’s (2004)
scale as in Study 1. To further reflect the state nature of this
construct, we made one adjustment and asked participants to rate
the extent to which they feel this way right now (␣⫽.88).
Subordinate leader-member exchange. We measured LMX
using Graen and Uhl-Bien’s (1995) LMX scale as in Study 1. We
asked participants to rate the relationship between themselves and
their current supervisor right now (␣⫽.79).
Manipulation checks. At the end of the experiment, we asked
participants to rate their leader in the recall exercise using an
adapted nine-item humility scale developed by Owens et al. (2013;
␣⫽.89). Furthermore, we adopted the six items developed in
Study 1 to assess whether the manipulation of self-serving attri-
bution of leader humility was successful (␣⫽.91).
Study 2 Results
Descriptive statistics and correlations are presented in Table 6.
Participants in the humble leader condition rated their leaders to
be significantly humbler (M3.78, SD .58, n80) than those
in the control condition (M3.33, SD .61, n81), t(159)
4.75, p.001, d.75. Also, participants in the high self-serving
attribution of leader humility condition rated self-serving attribu-
tion (M3.65, SD .65, n81) higher than those in the low
self-serving attribution of leader humility condition (M2.60,
SD .85, n80), t(159) 8.81, p.001, d1.39. Thus, these
results suggested that our manipulations were successful.
The interactive effect of leader humility and subordinate self-
serving attribution of leader humility in predicting subordinate
psychological entitlement was significant (Model 2 in Table 7, b
.50, p.05). Simple slope tests further indicated that this rela-
tionship was significant and positive when subordinate self-
serving attribution was high (b.42, t3.38, p.01) but was
not significant when subordinate self-serving attribution was low
(b⫽⫺.08, t⫽⫺0.48, p.63; see Figure 5). Thus, Hypothesis
1 was supported.
Table 3
Regression Results for the Predictors of Subordinate Psychological Entitlement in Study 1
Variables
Subordinate psychological entitlement (T2)
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
bSE t b SE t b SE t
Subordinate gender (T1) .02 .07 .30 .00 .07 .01 .01 .07 .12
Subordinate age (T1) .02 .01 2.68
ⴱⴱ
.02 .01 2.59
.02 .01 2.53
Subordinate education (T1) .04 .03 1.47 .02 .03 .71 .03 .03 .93
Subordinate dyadic tenure (T1) .02 .01 1.50 .02 .01 1.47 .01 .01 1.34
Subordinate negative affect (T1) .02 .05 .35 .03 .05 .64 .04 .05 .79
Leader humility (T1) .07 .05 1.48 .08 .05 1.59
Subordinate self-serving attribution (T1) .24 .07 3.60
ⴱⴱ
.26 .07 3.92
ⴱⴱ
Leader Humility (T1) Subordinate self-serving attribution (T1) .28 .09 3.26
ⴱⴱ
Constant 3.13 .03 94.60
ⴱⴱ
3.13 .03 97.30
ⴱⴱ
3.11 .03 97.74
ⴱⴱ
R
2
.04 .10 .13
R
2
.06
ⴱⴱ
.03
ⴱⴱ
F2.20
4.17
ⴱⴱ
5.11
ⴱⴱ
Note. n 275. For subordinate gender, 0 female; 1 male. T1/2/3 Time 1/2/3. Unstandardized regression coefficients are reported.
p.10.
p.05.
ⴱⴱ
p.01.
Figure 2. The moderating role of subordinate self-serving attribution on
the relationship between leader humility and subordinate psychological
entitlement in Study 1.
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9
THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD OF LEADER HUMILITY
Furthermore, the interactive effect of leader humility and sub-
ordinate self-serving attribution of leader humility in predicting
subordinate LMX was significant (Model 4 in Table 7, b⫽⫺.38,
p.05). Simple slope tests further indicated that this relationship
was significant and positive when subordinate self-serving attri-
bution was low (b.33, t2.82, p.01) but was not significant
when subordinate self-serving attribution was high (b⫽⫺.04,
t⫽⫺0.38, p.71; see Figure 6). Thus, Hypothesis 3 was
supported.
5
General Discussion
To date, the consensus has been that leader humility is univer-
sally beneficial and that such humility should be unconditionally
promoted. However, our research challenges this consensus by
revealing that leader humility has mixed effects on subordinate
outcomes. Across a field study and an experiment, we found that
when subordinate self-serving attribution was high, leader humility
led to high subordinate psychological entitlement, which in turn
promoted workplace deviance. In contrast, when subordinate self-
serving attribution was low, leader humility led to high LMX,
which in turn inhibited workplace deviance.
Implications for Theory
Our research makes several important theoretical contributions
to the extant literatures on leader humility, entitlement, LMX,
deviance, and attribution. First, this research contributes to the
humility literature by offering a richer picture of the negative and
positive effects that leader humility has on subordinates. Prior
research has predominantly focused on the positive effects of
leader humility on subordinates, teams, and even organizations
(Ou et al., 2014; Owens et al., 2013; Vera & Rodriguez-Lopez,
2004; for an exception at the team level, see Hu, Erdogan, Jiang,
Bauer, & Liu, 2018). However, we challenge the prevailing con-
clusion that leader humility is always beneficial and argue that
5
Although Study 2 was experimental in nature, we also conducted two
supplementary analyses as robustness checks. First, in addition to the adapted
nine-item scale, we also measured subordinate psychological entitlement using
the Me Versus Other Scale developed by Campbell et al. (2004). This scale has
also been used in other studies assessing state psychological entitlement (e.g.,
Piff, 2014). Specifically, this scale measured participants’ views of themselves
versus others in a visual and nonverbal way (see Appendix A). Participants
were given seven sets of four circles. Participants were asked to choose the
image that best represents how they see themselves (i.e., circle labeled “Me”)
compared to others (i.e., circle labeled “Other”) right now in the organization
that they are working in. A larger number indicates higher psychological
entitlement. The results using this measure were comparable to those reported
above. Specifically, the interaction term between leader humility and subor-
dinate self-serving attribution in predicting subordinate psychological entitle-
ment remained significant (b1.20, p.01). Second, we further explored
whether our effects hold when controlling for related leadership styles, such as
consideration and servant leadership. We chose these two leadership constructs
because the main characteristics of consideration and servant leadership in-
clude showing concern and offering support toward subordinates, caring about
subordinates’ welfare, and even prioritizing subordinates’ needs (Greenleaf,
1970; Judge, Piccolo, & Ilies, 2004), and these characteristics share conceptual
overlap with leader humility. As such, we measured consideration and servant
leadership at the end of Study 2 (i.e., consideration was measured using the
10-item scale developed by Stogdill [1963; ␣⫽.90], and servant leadership
was measured using the seven-item scale developed by Liden, Wayne, Liao,
and Meuser [2014; ␣⫽.81]). The supplementary analyses revealed that the
manipulation of leader humility did not significantly affect participants’ per-
ceptions of leader consideration (treatment group: M3.65, SD .58 vs.
control group: M3.51, SD .61, t(159) 1.42, p.16) and servant
leadership (treatment group: M3.30, SD .64 vs. control group: M3.21,
SD .58, t(159) 0.97, p.33). Furthermore, when controlling for the
effects of consideration and servant leadership and their interactions terms, the
interaction between leader humility and subordinate self-serving attribution of
leader humility in predicting subordinate psychological entitlement remained
significant (controlling for consideration and its interaction with self-serving
attribution: b.52, p.05; controlling for servant leadership and its
interaction with self-serving attribution: b.49, p.05; controlling for both
consideration and servant leadership as well as their interactions together
yielded similar results). Thus, these results suggested that our findings are
likely unique to leader humility and cannot be substituted by leader consider-
ation and servant leadership. Detailed results for these supplementary analyses
are available from the authors upon request.
Table 4
Regression Results for the Predictors of Subordinate Workplace Deviance in Study 1
Variables
Subordinate workplace deviance (T3)
Model 1 Model 2
bSE t bSE t
Subordinate gender (T1) .10 .05 1.91
.10 .05 2.03
Subordinate age (T1) .00 .01 .24 .00 .01 .05
Subordinate education (T1) .02 .02 .84 .02 .02 .74
Subordinate dyadic tenure (T1) .00 .01 .35 .00 .01 .27
Subordinate negative affect (T1) .16 .04 4.45
ⴱⴱ
.15 .04 4.15
ⴱⴱ
Leader humility (T1) .02 .04 .52 .02 .04 .50
Subordinate self-serving attribution (T1) .03 .05 .64 .07 .05 1.35
Leader humility (T1) Subordinate self-serving attribution (T1) .05 .07 .77 .06 .07 .85
Subordinate psychological entitlement (T2) .18 .05 3.87
ⴱⴱ
Subordinate leader-member exchange (T2) .21 .06 3.80
ⴱⴱ
Constant 1.51 .03 59.53
ⴱⴱ
1.52 .02 62.18
ⴱⴱ
R
2
.09 .17
R
2
.08
ⴱⴱ
F3.41
ⴱⴱ
5.43
ⴱⴱ
Note. n 275. For subordinate gender, 0 female; 1 male. T1/2/3 Time 1/2/3. Unstandardized regression coefficients are reported.
p.10.
p.05.
ⴱⴱ
p.01.
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10 QIN, CHEN, YAM, HUANG, AND JU
leader humility is a mixed blessing, suggesting that although leader
humility might be associated with many positive subordinate out-
comes, it can also be costly (e.g., increased deviance). Investigating
both the negative and positive effects of leader humility provides a
more balanced and dialectical understanding of the effects of leader
humility than previously assumed and highlights the need to consider
the potential dark side of leader humility.
Second, we contribute to the humility literature by revealing
when and how leader humility promotes versus inhibits subordi-
nate deviance. Specifically, by exploring subordinate self-serving
attribution of leader humility as a key boundary condition, we
found that the effects of leader humility can differ, which produces
diverging pathways (i.e., psychological entitlement and LMX) to
deviance. Considering the fact that leader humility has both dark
and bright sides, it is critical to understand when leader humility
leads to positive or negative outcomes to achieve a comprehensive
understanding of the positive and negative effects of leader hu-
mility on subordinates (Colquitt & Zapata-Phelan, 2007; Whetten,
1989). In addition, revealing the “black box” of how leader hu-
mility promotes or inhibits subordinates also helps us gain a better
understanding about leader humility’s impact on subordinates.
However, research on leader humility is still in its infancy, and
extant work has only started to document its boundary conditions
and underlying mechanisms. Thus, our research enriches the hu-
mility literature in this regard.
Third, this research contributes to the psychological entitlement
literature by extending the discussion on the causes of psycholog-
ical entitlement. Prior research has suggested that employees feel
a sense of entitlement due to either their own behaviors (e.g.,
organizational citizenship behavior; Yam et al., 2017) or others’
negative treatment (e.g., being mistreated; Zitek et al., 2010). In
this research, we reveal that others’ positive treatment (e.g., lead-
ers’ humble behavior) can also lead to psychological entitlement
when individuals attribute these positive treatments in a self-
serving way. Thus, we extend the psychological entitlement liter-
ature by identifying an important but neglected antecedent of
entitlement in the workplace. More importantly, these findings
enrich our understanding about the antecedents of psychological
entitlement by showing that it can be a result of not only others’
mistreatment but also of others’ positive treatment under certain
conditions.
Fourth, the present research also contributes to the LMX liter-
ature by examining the relationship between leader humility and
LMX. As noted earlier, LMX has been shown to be one of the
most crucial underlying mechanisms explaining the relationship
between leader behaviors and subordinate work outcomes (Dule-
bohn et al., 2012; Little et al., 2016). We found that leader humility
was positively related to LMX, especially when subordinates val-
ued these behaviors and had low levels of self-serving attribution.
Our findings also echo previous research highlighting the impor-
tant role of attributions in LMX-development processes (e.g.,
Dasborough & Ashkanasy, 2002; Dienesch & Liden, 1986; Gard-
ner et al., 2019; Lam et al., 2007; Martinko et al., 2007).
Fifth, this research extends the application of attribution theory
in the organizational sciences. Although useful, attribution theory
has historically been underused in this field (Harvey, Madison,
Martinko, Crook, & Crook, 2014). Although a handful of studies
have examined the role of leaders’ attributions in subordinates’
Table 5
Regression Results for the Predictors of Subordinate Leader-Member Exchange in Study 1
a
Variables
Leader-member exchange (T2)
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
bSE t b SE t b SE t
Subordinate gender (T1) .02 .06 .34 .01 .06 .10 .00 .06 .05
Subordinate age (T1) .01 .01 1.02 .01 .01 1.54 .01 .01 1.70
Subordinate education (T1) .04 .02 1.64 .04 .02 1.69
.03 .02 1.48
Subordinate dyadic tenure (T1) .02 .01 1.78
.01 .01 1.47 .01 .01 1.33
Subordinate negative affect (T1) .09 .04 2.17
.04 .04 .95 .04 .04 1.14
Leader humility (T1) .26 .04 6.08
ⴱⴱ
.25 .04 6.13
ⴱⴱ
Subordinate self-serving attribution (T1) .07 .06 1.21 .05 .06 .92
Leader humility (T1) Subordinate self-serving attribution (T1) .28 .07 3.85
ⴱⴱ
Constant 3.34 .03 112.58
ⴱⴱ
3.34 .03 120.72
ⴱⴱ
3.35 .03 123.23
ⴱⴱ
R
2
.05 .18 .22
R
2
.13
ⴱⴱ
.04
ⴱⴱ
F2.84
8.38
ⴱⴱ
9.56
ⴱⴱ
Note. n 275. For subordinate gender, 0 female; 1 male. T1/2/3 Time 1/2/3. Unstandardized regression coefficients are reported.
p.10.
p.05.
ⴱⴱ
p.01.
Figure 3. The moderating role of subordinate self-serving attribution on
the relationship between leader humility and subordinate leader-member
exchange in Study 1.
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11
THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD OF LEADER HUMILITY
behaviors (Green & Mitchell, 1979), research on the effects of
subordinates’ attributions in leaders’ behaviors is relatively rare
(Liu et al., 2012). Our research suggests that subordinate attribu-
tions have important implications for leadership effectiveness:
namely, an otherwise positive leadership style promotes workplace
deviance when subordinates attribute it in a self-serving way.
Overall, our results answer Martinko, Harvey, and Dasborough’s
(2011) call for more research on attribution in organizations by
examining attributions from the subordinate perspective.
Finally, this research extends the deviance literature by re-
vealing that positive leader behaviors (i.e., leader expressed
humility) may lead to employee deviance under certain condi-
tions (i.e., employees make a high self-serving attribution).
Previous research on the relationship between leader behaviors
and employee deviance has focused on two perspectives: (a)
how positive leader behaviors reduce employee deviance (e.g.,
ethical leadership; Brown & Treviño, 2006; Erkutlu & Chafra,
2013; van Gils, Van Quaquebeke, van Knippenberg, van Dijke,
& De Cremer, 2015) and (b) how negative leader behaviors lead
to more deviance (e.g., abusive supervision, Mitchell & Am-
brose, 2007). Thus, our finding that leader expressed humility
can lead to increased employee work deviance under certain
conditions suggests a new perspective to explore how leader
behaviors affect employee deviance.
Implications for Practice
Although leader humility is generally recognized as beneficial
for subordinates and organizations, our findings suggest that prac-
titioners should also pay attention to its potential downsides. A key
finding is that the undesirable effects (i.e., increased psychological
entitlement and workplace deviance) of leader humility are most
likely to arise when subordinates attribute leaders’ humble treat-
ment to their own uniqueness and contributions, whereas the
beneficial effects (i.e., increased LMX and decreased deviance) are
most likely to emerge when subordinates do not make such a
self-serving attribution. Thus, to reduce the costs and enhance the
benefits of leader humility, humble leaders should take action to
reduce subordinate self-serving attribution. Specifically, humble
leaders should pay attention to subordinates’ attribution tendencies
and be more careful when expressing humility to subordinates who
may make a high self-serving attribution. For example, a humble
leader could communicate to subordinates that he or she treats all
subordinates humbly instead of treating only select subordinates
humbly. Also, demonstrating humility consistently across contexts
may reduce subordinate self-serving attribution as behavioral con-
sistency is generally easier to attribute to leaders’ inner character-
istics rather than to subordinates’ strengths and contributions.
Strengths, Limitations, and Future Directions
Although the current work has a variety of strengths (e.g., a mix
of field and experimental studies, etc.), it has several limitations
that should be discussed and addressed by future research. First,
although we mirrored the manipulation used by Owens and Hek-
man (2016) and adapted the control condition to be even more
conservative in Study 2, some of our sample behaviors in the
control condition may still appear borderline narcissistic rather
Table 6
Descriptive Statistics and Correlations in Study 2
Variable MSD 123
1. Leader humility manipulation .50 .50
2. Subordinate self-serving attribution manipulation .50 .50 .03
3. Subordinate psychological entitlement 4.63 1.17 .10 .18
4. Subordinate leader-member exchange 3.51 .52 .14
.05 .04
Note. n 161; n80 in the humble leader condition; n81 in the control condition; n81 in the high
self-serving attribution condition; n80 in the low self-serving attribution condition. For the leader humility
manipulation, control condition 0; humble leader condition 1; For the subordinate self-serving attribution
manipulation, low self-serving attribution condition 0; high self-serving attribution condition 1.
p.10.
p.05.
Figure 4. Path model of the results in Study 1. Unstandardized regression coefficients are reported.
ⴱⴱ
p.01.
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12 QIN, CHEN, YAM, HUANG, AND JU
than neutral (see Appendix B). To alleviate this concern, we
checked our leader humility manipulation in Study 2. The manip-
ulation check results revealed that the average level of humility for
the recalled leader behavior in the control condition (using a
5-point Likert scale) was a little higher than 3 (i.e., neutral; M
3.33). These results provided some indirect support that partici-
pants in the control condition actually recalled relatively neutral
rather than narcissistic leader behaviors. That said, we encourage
future research to employ even more neutral sample behaviors
(e.g., transactional leadership behaviors) to replicate our findings.
Furthermore, we used general reference descriptions to manipulate
high versus low self-serving attribution in Study 2. However, the
self-serving attribution manipulation ideally should have specifi-
cally referred to the recalled humble behaviors of the leader.
Future research should take this issue into consideration when
manipulating self-serving attribution of leader humility.
Second, in this research, we focused squarely on one type of
attribution—self-serving attribution of leader humility—to explore
the impacts of leader humility on subordinates. Although our focus
is consistent with the previous attribution literature, we encourage
future research to explore how other types of attribution (e.g.,
leader-serving attribution
6
) of leader humility may affect the rela-
tionship between leader humility and subordinate outcomes. For
example, LMX is likely to increase more when subordinates attri-
bute leader humility to leaders’ dispositions (i.e., high leader-
serving attribution). Another possibility is that subordinates high
on perspective taking may be less prone to self-serving attribution
and more prone to leader-serving attribution and are thus more
likely to make a leader-serving attribution of leader humility.
Interestingly, we also note that Asians tend to experience lower
levels of self-serving attribution relative to Westerners (Mezulis et
al., 2004). As such, the effect sizes revealed in the current research
are likely to be conservative. We thus welcome future research to
examine whether the negative effects of leader humility are stron-
ger in Western contexts.
Third, we used different measures of psychological entitlement
across the two studies. Although the measure used in Study 2
strictly assessed state psychological entitlement, the measure used
in Study 1 may have captured both state-like and trait-like psy-
chological entitlement. More generally, we suggest that extant
measures of state psychological entitlement are not perfect and
encourage future research to create and validate a state measure of
psychological entitlement with sound psychometric properties.
Finally, we encourage future leader humility research to take a
temporal perspective into account. Over time, some humble lead-
ers may be aware of the negative effects of their humble behavior
and react accordingly. One likely outcome is differentiated leader
humility—that is, humble leaders may vary their expressed humil-
ity toward different subordinates based on their attribution styles
or other traits (Qin et al., 2018). As such, we recommend future
research employ longitudinal studies to better capture these effects.
Conclusion
Drawing upon attribution theory, we found that leader humility
is a mixed blessing and its consequences are contingent upon
subordinates’ attributions. By integrating the dark and bright sides
6
When developing and validating the scale for self-serving attribution of
leader humility, we also developed and validated a six-item scale for
leader-serving attribution of leader humility. These six items and detailed
results for this scale’s development and validation are available from the
authors upon request.
Table 7
Regression Results for the Predictors of Subordinate Psychological Entitlement and Leader-Member Exchange in Study 2
Variables
Subordinate psychological entitlement Subordinate leader-member exchange
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
bSE t b SE t bSE t b SE t
Leader humility manipulation .17 .10 1.69
.08 .14 .53 .15 .08 1.77
.33 .11 2.91
ⴱⴱ
Subordinate self-serving attribution manipulation .25 .10 2.47
.01 .14 .04 .05 .08 .56 .14 .11 1.23
Leader humility manipulation Subordinate self-serving
attribution manipulation
.50 .20 2.46
.38 .16 2.32
Constant 2.94 .09 32.70
ⴱⴱ
3.07 .10 29.87
ⴱⴱ
3.46 .07 48.26
ⴱⴱ
3.37 .08 40.97
ⴱⴱ
R
2
.05 .09 .02 .05
R
2
.04
.03
F4.35
5.02
ⴱⴱ
1.76 3.00
Note.n161. For the leader humility manipulation, control condition 0; humble leader condition 1. For the subordinate self-serving attribution
manipulation, low self-serving attribution condition 0; high self-serving attribution condition 1.
p.10.
p.05.
ⴱⴱ
p.01.
Figure 5. The moderating role of subordinate self-serving attribution on
the relationship between leader humility and subordinate psychological
entitlement in Study 2.
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13
THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD OF LEADER HUMILITY
of leader humility, we hope the current study sparks future re-
search on leader humility in organizational settings.
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exchange in Study 2.
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(Appendices follow)
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THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD OF LEADER HUMILITY
Appendix A
Scale Items Used in Studies 1 and 2
Leader Humility
1. My supervisor actively seeks my feedback even if it is
critical.
2. My supervisor admits to me when he or she doesn’t
know how to do something.
3. My supervisor acknowledges when I have more
knowledge and skills than him or her.
4. My supervisor takes notice of my strengths.
5. My supervisor compliments me on my strengths.
6. My supervisor shows appreciation for my unique con-
tributions.
7. My supervisor is willing to learn from me.
8. My supervisor is open to my ideas.
9. My supervisor is open to my advice.
Psychological Entitlement (Nine-Item Version)
1. I honestly feel I’m just more deserving than others.
2. Great things should come to me.
3. If I were on the Titanic, I would deserve to be on the
first lifeboat!
4. I demand the best because I’m worth it.
5. I deserve special treatment.
6. I deserve more things in my life.
7. People like me deserve an extra break now and then.
8. Things should go my way.
9. I feel entitled to more of everything.
Psychological Entitlement (One-Item Version)
See the online article for the color version of this figure.
Leader-Member Exchange
1. I know how satisfied my supervisor is with me.
2. My supervisor understands my job problems and
needs.
3. My supervisor recognizes my potential.
4. Regardless of how much formal authority my super-
visor has built into his or her position, he or she will
use his or her power to help me solve problems in my
work.
5. Regardless of the amount of formal authority my su-
pervisor has, he or she would “bail me out” at his or
her expense.
(Appendices continue)
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18 QIN, CHEN, YAM, HUANG, AND JU
6. I have enough confidence in my supervisor that I
would defend and justify his or her decision if he or
she was not present to do so.
7. I would characterize my working relationship with my
supervisor as effective.
Self-Serving Attribution of Leader Humility
1. Because I know how to do something my supervisor
doesn’t know.
2. Because I have more knowledge and skills than my
supervisor.
3. Because I have lots of strengths.
4. Because I make unique contributions to the organiza-
tion.
5. Because I have so many strengths that my supervisor
can learn from me.
6. Because I have lots of advices my supervisor can take.
Workplace Deviance
1. Purposely wasted the employer’s materials/supplies.
2. Complained about insignificant things at work.
3. Told people outside the job what a lousy place you
work for.
4. Came to work late without permission.
5. Stayed home from work and said you were sick when
you weren’t.
6. Insulted someone about their job performance.
7. Made fun of someone’s personal life.
8. Ignored someone at work.
9. Started an argument with someone at work.
10. Insulted or made fun of someone at work.
Negative Affect
1. Upset.
2. Nervous.
3. Scared.
4. Distressed.
5. Afraid.
Appendix B
Sample Responses Provided to Participants in Study 2
Humble leader condition Control condition
1. Your supervisor acknowledged that you had more knowledge and skills
than him or her.
1. Your supervisor provided some feedback to your ideas.
2. Your supervisor complimented you on your strengths and showed
appreciation for your unique contributions.
2. Your supervisor thought your ideas were not good enough and
needed improvement.
3. Your supervisor was open to your ideas and advice and was willing to
learn from you.
3. Your supervisor thought that he or she was good at the task and his
or her ideas were better and thus you should follow his or her way.
(Appendices continue)
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19
THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD OF LEADER HUMILITY
Appendix C
Sample Recall Responses From Study 2
Humble leader condition Control condition
“At a meeting, I clearly and completely presented our design to
our client. My supervisor also listened the presentation and
was very satisfied with it. After the meeting, he said that my
presentation was more professional and logical than his and I
can have a free hand to attend the meeting in future.”
“We needed to design a fixed template or system for the multi-project
information collection within our enterprise. Last Monday, at the
department meeting, my supervisor said that the template I
designed was relatively rough. He thought that my idea was
somehow simple and more detailed information should be
considered and added.”
Note. Instructions: Immediately after the recall task, we asked participants to relive the experience as much as possible and wrote a paragraph to describe
what happened in detail.
Received April 21, 2018
Revision received September 17, 2019
Accepted September 18, 2019
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20 QIN, CHEN, YAM, HUANG, AND JU
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... We tested the discriminant validity of the focal scales with confirmatory factor analysis (CFA). Drawing on the parceling method used by Qin et al. (2020) [51], we created parcels of items for the thriving at work and team temporal leadership constructs. Table 1 shows the fit indices of the CFA. ...
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