I recently found myself engaging in discourse with a stranger at the park who happened to be a dog trainer. As he was approaching, I cautioned him that my dog is terrified of hands. I asked him to please keep his hands at his sides if he wanted to approach her. Despite my warnings, the trainer proceeded to approach her and to repeatedly to extend his hands towards my dog. For some reason unbeknownst to me, he seemed to think he was special, the exception who wouldn’t invite my dog to shake, pull away, and pee herself in terror of an approaching hand.
Like the dog trainer, some managers exhibit distorted notions of their abilities. They deem themselves special, possessing unique traits that are superior to their peers. Research conducted by Columbia Business School, for example, found that many people rate their performance to be 30% higher than it actually is. Failing to appreciate their limitations, individuals exhibiting a distorted sense of confidence tend to lead with their ego. They don't realize that their ultimate success as a leader rests on their ability to lead with humility, not ego. Fortunately, humility can be taught and learned.
1. Participate in team-oriented projects and activities
By the nature of their work, many managers tend to spend the bulk of their days instructing and directing others, rather than working collaboratively with them. Many managers become so accustomed to issuing directions that the act of receiving directions becomes unfamiliar and even nerve-wracking.
In order to gain humility, it’s important that managers make the time to participate in team-oriented projects and initiatives that require them to work with side by side with their co-workers. Ask managers to occasionally work on projects that entail expertise they don't possess. When managers are compelled to rely on their co-workers in order to be successful, they are in a great position to learn from their peers and are more likely to recognize their own strengths and limitations. The process can be an incredibly humbling one.
2. Practice gratitude
A 2014 study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, fittingly titled, An Upward Spiral Between Gratitude and Humility, found that humility and gratitude are mutually reinforcing. That is, heightened levels of humility trigger heightened levels of gratitude.
Managers who practice gratitude are more likely to exude humility. Encourage managers to keep a gratitude journal or diary. Recommend that they develop formal and informal processes for identifying and rewarding their employees' contributions. Ask them to reflect on the strengths of their employees. Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project and author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, explains, “Genuine humility is a reflection of neither weakness nor insecurity. Instead, it implies a respectful appreciation of the strengths of others, a lack of personal pretension and a more relaxed sense of confidence that doesn’t require external recognition.”
3. Present and examine the evidence
A lack of humility is often the result of a failure to accurately assess and diagnose one’s limitations. Oftentimes, it takes hard, concrete evidence for managers to cross the mental chasm preventing them from recognizing their own shortcomings. Ego-driven managers are especially prone to having a distorted view of themselves.
Administering a 360-degree assessment after large projects or every other year, and reviewing the results with your direct report managers can prove eye-opening. Direct feedback from employees will help managers realize their own strengths and blind spots, and acquire a more updated and accurate view of themselves. Executive coaches are especially skilled in administering enlightening peer assessments. They are also able to facilitate and engage in safe discussions with managers to review feedback and help managers come to terms with their shortcomings. Knowledge is power.
Humility is a prerequisite for effective leadership. In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins defines 5 levels of leadership, culminating in ‘Level 5’ leadership. Collins explains that Level 5 leaders exhibit a unique combination of humility and will. With the right support, all managers are able to gain humility. As C.S. Lewis once remarked, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.”
In any case, there is no way I would hire a dog trainer who misses such obvious human and canine cues, and my dog and I promptly walked over to another part of the park where she could relax and enjoy herself.
I care deeply about helping leaders and advancing the human resources profession. I have authored two books, The Art of Executive Coaching and Stress-less Leadership, and maintain a regular blog. I am also a leading contributor for The Society For Human Resources Management, Entrepreneur Magazine, and The Association of Talent Development.
As an active animal advocate, I donate 100% of all book proceeds to animal welfare.
The opinions in this article are my own, and do not reflect those of my publishers or employers.