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Humble colleagues or competent colleagues, which do you prefer?

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Fri, 29 Jul 2022
Humble colleagues or competent colleagues, which do you prefer?

New research explores whether people value humble colleagues more than competent colleagues.

Managing social interactions with colleagues at work can make the difference between success or failure in your career. After all, if you can't get along well with others, your work will have little impact.

Past research has suggested that likability and competence affect interpersonal interactions. In organisational settings, humility is a similarly attractive trait that is frequently analysed and highly valued. Dr Ai Ni Teoh, Academic Head of the School of Social and Health Sciences at James Cook University in Singapore, and Ms Livia Kriwangko, Graduate Diploma of Psychology student, set out to examine how humility and competence affect interactions, and in turn better understand when each trait should be valued in organisational settings.

Four archetypes can be developed when evaluating the range of humility and competence:

  1. Humble star — Very humble and highly competent
  2. Humble fool — Very humble but incompetent
  3. Competent jerk — Not humble but highly competent
  4. Incompetent jerk — Not humble and incompetent

“Although we expect humble stars to remain the most popular archetype and incompetent jerks the least, two possible compensatory effects might occur when it comes to the preference between humble fools and competent jerks,” says Dr Teoh.

Over 400 participants were surveyed for the study, which revealed that when considering humility and competence, it is important to observe the context of the interaction. In certain situations, humility may compensate for a lack of competence as humble people are likely to be more receptive to feedback, knowing their own weaknesses and others’ strengths. This may cause humble fools to be preferred over competent jerks.

“Organisations that manifest humility in their practices are more likely to have outstanding performance as humble behaviours facilitate innovation through an open attitude of experimentation and discussion,” explains Dr Teoh. “In other words, interpersonal relationships based on humility can also be an asset that positively affect organisational performance.”

She adds, “Having a humble leader generates more team information sharing and facilitates a psychologically safe environment, both interpersonally and within the team. This positive influence is especially optimised when there is consistency in the leader’s humility. In sum, a humble trait may compensate for competence, where humble fools are preferred over competent jerks.”

However, there are also scenarios where competence can compensate for a lack of humility, and competent jerks are preferred over humble fools. “When an arrogant colleague has competence to offer, he or she will improve team performance. Therefore, competence may compensate for a lack of humility, especially in a workplace setting where performance and goal attainment are highly regarded.”

The compensatory effects of humility and competence depend on the context of interaction. In workplace settings, colleagues may interact with each other at a personal level, such as during lunch, and at a professional level, such as discussing projects. Personal-level interactions do not require competence, and hence competence holds little importance in such contexts.

As such, emphasising competence is just as important as promoting humility in the workplace. After all, humility helps to create a workplace environment that facilitates communication through people who appreciate others and are willing to share information. Meanwhile, competent people may contribute to team performance by increasing work efficiency and outcomes, and may also motivate team members to be more competitive. Although competent jerks may produce conflict, humble stars and humble fools may buffer the conflict by creating a non-hostile environment.

Ultimately, a team should be diverse in terms of the archetypes of the members to provide a balanced dynamic within the team. Humility can pave the way for a comfortable ambience for communication, while competence contribute to team performance and motivate other team members to improve their competitiveness. Therefore, leaders should assign tasks by considering the various contributions these different types of people may bring.


Teoh, Ai N., and Livia Kriwangko. 2022. "Humility and Competence: Which Attribute Affects Social Relationships at Work?" International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19, no. 10: 5969.

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Dr Ai Ni Teoh [email protected]
Media: Mr Edwin Teo [email protected]