What Humility Is and Is Not

I saw an Adam Grant post about humility that struck a chord with me. Grant’s post read, 

“Downplaying your achievements is not the antidote to appearing arrogant. Humility is acknowledging your weakness, not denying your strengths. Generosity is elevating others, not diminishing yourself. Owning your success doesn’t make you  a narcissist – it makes you a role model.” 

I feel like humility can get a bad rap since misguided perspectives can lead to negative assumptions like humble people can be walked over, don’t have a backbone, or are so accommodating they are unable to stand up for themselves. Often, this perception of humility is not reality and hides the power of humility. For the purpose of this blog, I have outlined my perspective on what humility is and what it is not. 

What humility is not

  • A weakness
  • Devaluing strengths
  • Discrediting your own opinions
  • Underestimating or undervaluing your talents
  • Being unnecessarily apologetic

What humility is

  • A grateful attitude
  • Thinking of others more
  • Valuing the strengths of others
  • Seeing value in non-material things
  • Taking responsibility for your impact on others (words and actions) 
  • Acknowledging and learning from mistakes
  • Knowing when to ask for help

Recent research has found that humility is a common characteristic of people who learn from mistakes. The study concludes that “humble people are willing to see themselves accurately and appreciate the feedback. Errors and mistakes provide feedback on one’s own actions. So humble people see value in errors and the information that they provide for their own learning.” 

The Three Benefits of Humility at Work

  1. Stronger Relationships with Your Boss, Peers, and Employees 

To me, honesty and humility are very related. If you can be honest with yourself and admit when you have made a mistake and not performed at your best, you can truly grow. From the earliest ages, we were often taught we were either right or wrong. Red pen marks on a spelling test for every mistake you made. 

Viewing missteps as opportunities to grow opens you up to honest dialogue with yourself and others. Then taking those mistakes a step further and sharing them with the people you work with allows both them and you to grow. If there is ever an expectation that you are perfect at work, you are likely working for the wrong leader or company. Having someone at the top who continuously dismisses criticism and blames others for their mistakes makes for a toxic combination.

I remember an instance early on in my career where a CEO told a story at the All-Hands meeting that people are allowed to make one mistake at the company, but after the second mistake, they would be fired. Do you think anyone ever wanted to admit that anything was less than perfect there? 

When you open up to others about your strengths and weaknesses, others will frequently help in areas where they know you could use a boost. Plus, employees can see you modeling humility by being open and sharing your journey. This leads to trust and loyalty at an entirely new level. 

  1. Increased Ideas and Productivity

When risk-taking is encouraged, employees can thrive and benefit an organization without fear. The technology industry is full of examples of people who want to change the world for the better. A company I worked out had employees set quarterly goals, and people were more highly rewarded for setting very aggressive goals and coming up short versus those who set conservative metrics and blew them out. Another example of setting ambitious goals that I love is MD Andreson Moon Shot Program, which is working on eliminating cancer and reducing cancer deaths. 

Humble people are also more likely to seek resources and give others the help they need to complete their tasks. The Journal of Management study found the numerous positive impacts of being a humble leader. Those include – leaders who were humble and were far more likely to delegate and innovate, resulting in improved company performance and employee satisfaction improved, and turnover dropped.

  1. Improved Employee Satisfaction and Loyalty 

A recent Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies found that – leaders with good self-insight, humble, and who act as credible role models are rewarded with committed and service-minded employees. By demonstrating humility, you seek answers from your employees as posted to always claiming to have them. You are willing to ask for input from customers in terms of how to make the relationship better. You have a growth mindset from the beginning of your career through your final working years. Employees feel empowered and will demonstrate their humility working in your organization.  

Humility is an often overlooked trait; in our society, it is often the person who speaks first, is the loudest, and expresses the most conviction that wins. Humility gives us many things. First and foremost, to admit we are not always right, we are not always the smartest in the room, and we have room to grow. Demonstrating these traits is suitable for individuals and has many positive effects on your team and organizations. One of my CEOs used to remind his team you have two ears and one mouth, be sure to use them proportionally, which is excellent advice to be leaders who hire outstanding people and want to learn from them.

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