Insight for Leaders

Want to do more with less? Try some humility.

A new study has revealed findings that every leader of a large company should know.

Why should every executive know about this new bit of research? The findings are essential for company leaders who want their organization to move with agility and focus because when valuable data, contacts, or best practices are locked away in a silo, information sharing can’t happen, and neither can doing more with less. 

The researchers behind this new study explain that if a manager feels a sense of superiority, they over-value their department’s information and behaviors. Meanwhile, they undervalue knowledge from other departments in the same corporation. 

Abhinav Gupta, an associate professor at the University of Washington and second author of the research paper, tells Asana that leaders at large companies should communicate with their managers about recognizing their own biases, which hinder agility during periods of uncertainty.

If you’re a leader at a large company, ensuring information flows between departments is essential if you want to do more with less.

To conduct their experiment, professor Gupta and his colleagues surveyed 118 leaders of subsidiaries at a large headhunting corporation with offices in 78 cities across China. While the research was done in a single country, the results apply to almost every company globally.

The study was published in the April 2022 issue of Strategic Management Journal.

Like many businesses with diversified goals, a headhunting corporation must be flexible. And yet, the headhunting industry hasn’t caught up with technology or business models that can improve flexibility and clarity that would increase its success, the researchers write:

“Although the headhunting industry has experienced rapid development along with the expansion of China’s economy over recent years, technology and business models in this industry remain immature, and there are no well-recognized benchmarks or best practices.”

Here’s what the survey results showed: Senior managers (the survey identifies them as “unit-heads”) who self-reported they had some narcissistic traits were actively slowing or stopping information-sharing (for the curious, researchers used the NPI-16 survey to collect the data).

“A manager who is in charge of personnel decisions, who has to think about who gets to occupy the roles which are key for knowledge sharing in the company—you want to make sure you don’t put a person [who exhibits narcissistic traits] in a position that will oversee the hiring of even more people with those traits.”

Thusly, those unit heads were reducing clarity between departments and limiting flexibility across the corporation. The average age of those unit heads was 31 years old, 54 percent were female, and 78 percent held undergraduate or higher-education degrees. 

While personality “meta-traits” like narcissism are challenging to suppress, they don’t have to be deal-breakers for a manager or the business.

“Recognition of one’s own biases could be something that could make a difference on the margins,” professor Gupta tells Asana.

Professor Gupta tells Asana that a manager acknowledging to oneself they have narcissistic traits—they may prefer to be the center of attention instead of blending in with the crowd—isn’t a bad thing.

“Recognition of one’s own biases could be something that could make a difference on the margins,” professor Gupta tells Asana.

Directors who oversee hiring across several teams should be especially mindful that they bring onboard managers who encourage cross-functional information sharing.

Department heads whose personalities lean toward humility or empathy—and if not, those who can act with humility and empathy—are better assets for information-sharing across the company, enabling it to do more with less.

The authors write that getting teams in sync with each other is easier with managers who can “lower the barriers to inter-unit knowledge transfer”:

“Less-narcissistic unit heads are more tolerant of and less threatened by the fact that they are not superior or distinctive to others, which also lowers the barriers to inter-unit knowledge transfer.”

Professor Gupta found that evolving, multi-business companies create an environment in which narcissistic bosses highly value information from other departments. When there is a lack of resources or knowledge, and that knowledge or budget gap affects the entire business, information-sharing becomes less of an issue between departments.

“If these managers can find an excuse in their environment, the personal need to manifest those behaviors is reduced or mitigated,” professor Gupta says.

In Brief: For decision-makers at the world’s biggest companies, “leading through uncertainty” often means doing more with less. An essential operation for businesses trying to do more with less is the free flow of information between subsidiaries, so the entire organization can work more effectively and increase speed. Creating transparency can increase trust among leaders in different departments, and with trust comes the ability to focus on the core business.

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Special thanks to Abhinav Gupta, Associate Professor of Management, Michael G. Foster Endowed Fellow, Foster School of Business at the University of Washington

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