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.

Learning’s Role in Executing Strategy

If you and your colleagues were asked to write down your organization’s strategy and top priorities, how many of you would be able to correctly identify them?

It might not be as many as you think.

A recent Harvard Business Review article (March 2015 Issue), Why Strategy Execution Unravels––and What to Do About It, offers a compelling example about an executive who took time every month to review the company’s strategy and strategic priorities with her management team. When polled, 84% indicated that they understood what their organization was trying to accomplish. But, when asked by researchers to write down the strategy in their own words and identify the top five priorities, only 55% could name one out of five. The research featured in this article focused on large, complex organizations, but I suspect that we would find similar results at organizations of all sizes. Why?

It’s not enough to publish and distribute strategic plans and promote strategy and strategic objectives in meetings. Everyone responsible for executing strategy and strategic objectives has to learn them.

What do I mean by learning them?

I don’t mean memorization. I mean grasping the significance of them. Members of your organization have to understand the reasons behind your strategy. They have to know how their daily work contributes to it. They have to see the connection between the objectives for which they are responsible and those for which others are responsible. They have to get how it all fits together to achieve strategic goals. Can you be successful if they don’t? Perhaps, but for how long and to what degree?

Are you willing to limit how much you achieve?

We all make the mistake of thinking that just saying something is enough. We forget the important role that learning plays. Were we heard? Understood? Do our listeners even care? Do they see how their interests intersect? Have they had the opportunity to apply the concepts and experience how they might work?

Here’s a non-work example. Let’s say you purchase a personal fitness tracker (e.g., a Fitbit). Your plan is to use it to raise your awareness of your daily activities so that you can make adjustments (i.e., your strategy) and ultimately improve your fitness (i.e., strategic goal). While simply wearing the tracker on your wrist may give the impression that you mean business, it will not help you achieve your goal. You have to learn what its features are, what they do and how you will know when you are making progress. You have to understand the tracker’s role in helping you achieving your goal. Otherwise, the tracker (i.e., strategy) is underutilized. It’s merely a hip wristband.

We can repeatedly promote our strategy, priorities and objectives, but until members of our organizations have truly learned them, to the point that they can write them down and explain how what they and others do contributes to them––our strategy will be ineffective, our priorities diluted and our objectives unrealized.

What might be possible if your organization invested in learning strategy?