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.

Avoid the Curse of Knowledge to Enable Learning

I’ve always wanted to learn to play chess.Chess

I’m not sure why. I am not an avid game player. Playing games with other people (as a child and into adulthood) always made me nervous. I was afraid of looking like I did not know what I was doing. (We’ll talk about not being afraid to fail another time.) I did like Scrabble because I loved learning new words, but for some reason I had a hard time convincing others of how fun it was!

My interest in chess grew after I watched the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer in 1993. I got even more curious in 1995 and 1996 when I read about the matches between IBM’s Deep Blue (a chess-playing computer) and World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov.

Still, I never learned to play … until last week.

I was spending time with out-of-state family after the death of a beloved great uncle. We had gathered at the home of one of my cousins (1st cousin once removed). I had not been to her family’s home before so my cousin gave me a tour. The tour concluded in a large living area. Her 13-old son told me that the room we were standing in was his favorite. I asked why. He first pointed to the upright piano in one corner of the rectangle-shaped room and then to a chess set displayed on a table in the adjacent corner.

I told him that I had always wanted to learn how to play chess and asked him if he would teach me. He immediately agreed and we sat down. He started with how to set up the board.

I wasn’t sure how this would go. While I’ve found teens to be terrific resources for learning about emerging technologies, cultural references and music, I worried that I might not pick up on chess quickly and my young cousin would give up on me.

It’s not unusual for the knowing among us to become frustrated with those who are learning. We possess a cognitive bias referred to as the “curse of knowledge.” Essentially, the curse of knowledge describes the effect of not recognizing what we know versus what someone with less familiarity knows. You’ve probably experienced the curse of knowledge when you try to teach someone about a familiar subject or activity. It’s easy to overlook fundamental information while describing the subject or activity because once you know it’s hard to remember not knowing.

As it turned out, my young cousin was an exceptional teacher and did not yield to the curse of knowledge. I told him I knew nothing. He started with the basics and slowly built layers of information. We actually played a game, but he openly shared the strategies behind his moves and suggested several strategies for my moves, which helped broaden my view of the board. At one point, several other cousins gathered around. I could tell that they saw moves that I did not. For a moment, that old nervousness crept in. But, my teacher generously allowed me to ask questions and consider possible moves in consultation with him.

If you have the responsibility of mentoring or training colleagues, take a moment to remember what it was like when you did not know what you now know. It actually requires effort because so much of our knowledge not easy to share or explain. But, recalling what it feels like to know very little will help you be more patient and provide better instruction. Moreover, seeing through the eyes of a beginner opens new dimensions to your own knowledge.

Because my cousin avoided the curse of knowledge, he taught me more in one game than I imagine I could have ever learned on my own. More importantly, he made the learning process enjoyable.

And, by doing so, he won me over to the game of chess.

Photo Credit: Muffet on Flickr, Chess Game