Humility: Something to Brag About

The title for this article might catch you by surprise. After all, isn’t humility about denying your greatness and not bragging about anything? As it turns out, not quite. Humility is a lot deeper and more valuable than plain old self-deprecation. This critical leadership trait involves a combination of honest introspection with the willingness to celebrate others’ strengths. That’s a recipe for success in the workplace, whether you’re a team member or company executive.

Humility Holdups

Okay, so if humility is so great, why is it so hard to find? The answer lies in the misconceptions we hold. As this HBR article laments, people see a contradiction between humility and ambition. They worry that being humble will cost them opportunities for advancement and success. This may be a valid concern, as this article acknowledges. We tend to collectively mistake high confidence for high competence. However, humility at work doesn’t require sacrificing your confidence. Instead, it means finding confidence in collaborative efforts and the power of your team, rather than focusing solely on yourself.

Another worry leaders harbor becomes especially prominent in times of crisis, like the current pandemic. As described here, leaders fear that demonstrating humility will be the wrong response to important problems. They believe that reacting with bravado and attempting to solve all issues alone will work best. That could not be further from the truth. Instead, workplace leaders need to acknowledge their own strengths and weaknesses. They need to cooperate with others and show deference to experts in order to best lead their organizations and teams through crisis.

Even outside COVID times, humility brings a lot of bang for its buck. Here are some more reasons why you should adopt some humble practices, for the current times and for always.

The Benefits Humility Brings

Whenever you work with others, you’ll find that humility brings out the best in a group. As this study demonstrated, humble people tend to be more generous with their time and money. That’s true across a variety of settings. When coworkers show more willingness to cooperate and give to one another, their performance soars. That’s why this piece was written about the competitive edge humility brings to a team or organization.

If you’re a leader, there’s even more value to demonstrating this important trait. This research found that humble CEOs empower leaders at all levels of their organizations, increasing their job performance throughout. This means that you don’t just have the ability to influence your immediate coworkers. A humble leader can cause a ripple effect in the whole company. Studies like this one and this one also indicate that humble leadership improves team performance among employees, not just other leaders. It’s no wonder that the author of this article found humble leaders to be rated as almost twice as effective as arrogant ones.

Ways to Work Humbly

Now that I’ve convinced you of the importance of humility, you may be wondering whether it’s just an inherent trait. Maybe you either have it, or you don’t. Not to worry–there are several strategies to build your humble muscle.

This article for leaders includes a whole bunch of ideas to incorporate into your work life. For instance, demonstrate that you recognize others’ strengths by sharing authority. This means delegating tasks and promoting shared decision making. It also means encouraging employees to set their own goals and supporting them in achieving those ambitions. This advice ties into what I wrote about how leaders should support goal setting in my earlier blog post. As this article points out, the result will be that you’ve demonstrated your concern for others, not just yourself. This will build trust and cooperation in your workplace. That’s a huge win for you and your team or organization.

What if you’re not a leader? There’s still room for humility to boost your workplace productivity. As this article points out, humble employees know when to step up and when to step back. If there’s a task the team needs done, and you’re the right person for the job, volunteer to pitch in. Even if you won’t be the one getting all the credit in the end because it’s not technically “your” responsibility, this is a way you can help the whole team move forward. On the other hand, when you’ve got something overwhelming on your plate, don’t hesitate to reach out for support. Acknowledge the strengths, skills, and expertise others have to share with you. Focus on collective wins and losses, not personal ones. That’s the key to working with humility, and a sure way to make standout contributions in the workplace.

Portrait of a Humble Organization

As I wrote about in my post about goal setting, the best way to set a goal is to determine specific targets. That means it’s not enough to say you want to be more humble. You have to know what that will look like. Fortunately, there are ways to define what humility in the workplace should and can look like.

For instance, this Forbes article defines humility as placing importance on others’ dignity. But what are the specific hallmarks of that value? This research holds some answers. In their attempt to measure workplace humility, Drs. Tiffany Maldonado and Dusya Vera, both professors of business, have identified six key features of a humble company culture. They describe these elements in this article for the Greater Good Science Center of UC Berkeley.

A humble organization practices introspection, encouraging awareness of its own strengths and weaknesses. Its leaders are transparent about this with employees, partners, and clients. They give credit for success where it’s due and taking responsibility for mistakes. Moreover, competent mistakes are normalized. Creating a culture where anyone can make an honest mistake promotes necessary creativity and risk-taking. On the other hand, achievements are celebrated. And growth is the norm. A humble organization invests in employee development and is open to new ideas. When your organization is taking these steps, you’ll know you’re growing towards a culture nourished by humility.

The Urgency of Humility in Crisis

As a final note, I want to point out how critical humility has become during the current pandemic. This article describes the pivotal role humble leadership can play in guiding an organization during this time. Most importantly, science shows that humility helps us make better decisions. We assess ideas more thoughtfully and demonstrate greater openness to new ideas when we take a humble approach. That’s critical now, when so much is constantly changing, yet so much is at stake. Making the best possible decisions for employees and organizations matters now more than ever before.

And on a day to day, even as organizations move out of crisis mode, the qualities a humble leader possesses will remain incredibly valuable. This article argues for the lasting need for greater humility in the workplace, in light of what we’ve learned. We need humble leaders to provide candid information, without distortion or equivocation. We need them to communicate consistently and with empathy. And we need them to demonstrate flexibility. As the author suggests, we need people at the helms of teams and organizations who are willing to answer hard questions with “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” Here’s to all of us becoming those people.