Is Humility Valued in Your Organization? It Should Be.

When your organization hires personnel is humility considered a strength?

Naturally, we find confident candidates attractive because they convince us that they are capable of getting the job done. Confidence is reassuring. And frankly, a candidate’s confidence might be enough if every aspect of a job were predictable.

Since that is not likely, consider seeking confident candidates who also possess humility. Though humility does not get the credit it deserves, it is an essential trait in organizations affected by change. (If your organization isn’t affected by change, you can stop reading here.)

Why? Humility opens the door for learning.

Humility helps us acknowledge that we might not know everything. Humility enables us to set aside our egos, recognize dissonance in our communities, and see incongruity between our beliefs and actions. Perhaps, most importantly, when sides start to form and stakes increase, humility reminds us to listen – to truly listen.

With humility, we recognize ourselves in context rather than set apart. We understand that our views are not the only views that shape our world. Once we understand that, we can ask questions with genuine curiosity, hear others’ perspectives and develop a more realistic outlook. Extolling humility as a desirable characteristic may seem more idealistic than pragmatic, but hubris endangers our ability to remain relevant and advance our causes.

Here’s an example. Following a particularly bad meeting in 2010, CEO Dave Balter recognized that his confidence had turned into cockiness. His view had been the only view and it was undermining everything for which he had worked. Balter described this as his wakeup moment and acknowledged, “My attitude prevented us from seeing changes coming until they were choking our business.” He now urges entrepreneurs to bury their egos.

Humility may seem like a weakness, but it isn’t. In an excellent post on humility for Entrepreneur, talent management consultants Zachary Feder and Khatera Sahibzada assert that humility “requires a substantial inner strength to embody – one that not only welcomes feedback and criticism but knows that it is one of the fundamental ways that we grow.”

That inner strength is important at every level of an organization – CEOs included. Leadership expert Jim Collins identifies humility as one of the characteristics of a “Level 5 Leader” – a leader capable of turning a good organization into a great organization.

If you want employees who can help you develop a realistic outlook of your marketplace, understand the needs of your constituents or successfully navigate organizational dynamics, you need to recruit, hire and promote people whose confidence is paired with humility.

There are many ways this can be accomplished. Do you construct your interview questions to reveal humility? Do you evaluate employees on how they respond to the perspectives of others? Does your organizational culture punish or praise people who admit to what they do not know? Thinking through questions like these can help you assess to what degree your organization values humility.

To dismiss the value of humility in the workplace is to dismiss the value of learning. In a constantly changing world, can your organization afford to do that?

Closing note: I want to thank colleagues Jonathan Magid, Glen Esnard, Paul Henley and Gretiana whose thoughtful comments on An Underrated Leadership Practice prompted this post on humility. And, as always, I invite you to contact me for further conversation about how to develop your organization’s strategic capability through learning.

An Underrated Leadership Practice

Search online for great leadership and you will find hundreds of articles outlining the characteristics, traits and skills great leaders possess. Many of the venerated qualities (e.g., honesty, passion, ability to delegate) repeatedly appear even when interpreted through varying lenses.

There is one leadership quality, however, that many of these lists hint at, but neglect to name outright. I’d argue that it is an essential discipline for leaders in the 21st century.

Great leaders ask for and show an openness to dissenting and alternative views.

This discipline (and it is a discipline requiring practice and behavioral alignment) can make the difference in whether a leader is prepared for shifts in markets, aware of changing perceptions and accountable for his or her own limitations.

Dissenting views never hold the whole truth. Nor does any view for that matter. But, if leaders can openly look for what truths dissenting and alternative views may offer, they will begin to see threats and opportunities that may have eluded them previously.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, intentionally looks to hire his weaknesses. That is an important first step to demonstrating an openness to dissenting and alternative views. Deliberately surround yourself with people who bring skills and expertise that aren’t among your strengths.

It’s not enough though. You have to ask your colleagues to weigh in with alternative views. Ask questions like, “What views are not being represented here?” or “Are there obstacles that we have not considered?” Pose questions that allow people to either share their own concerns or those expressed by others. I find it helpful to dedicate time in staff meetings for rumors, concerns and potential problems for this very reason. It helps unearth what may not be easy to say.

When what is shared runs contrary to your own beliefs, explore why. Questioning your own mindset and the reasons behind others’ perceptions is essential to understanding what you may have to address in order to achieve your goals.

Finally, honor and respect those with the courage to speak up. Even if you disagree, valuing people brave enough to reveal contrasting views will keep you from being blind to the unknown.

It’s the unknown that threatens the future of any organization. Fortunately, the unknown may be more knowable than realized. A leader’s best defense against it is an openness to dissenting and alternative views.

Closing note: This post was inspired by a number of conversations I’ve had with colleagues lately as well as an post titled “Why We Ignore the Obvious: The Psychology of Willful Blindness” by the amazing Maria Popova on Brain Pickings.