Humble Yourself at Work

Humility is one of those qualities that all leaders say they admire, but few want to experience.

Think about it. Ask any group of leaders if humility is important. Almost every one will nod and tell you that the world needs more humble leaders in every field: business, politics—well, everywhere. Ask that same group if any members would like an opportunity to be humbled. All are likely to decline.

I suppose it’s hard to blame them. Being humbled is by definition awkward, often painful. No one enjoys seeking out discomfort and hurt. Yet there is no getting around the importance of experiencing those difficult moments in life that reminded us that we are more fallible, broken, and human than we like to think.

One of the best opportunities that I’ve found for humility comes in my role as a parent. You might think I’m referring to the unglamorous work of changing diapers, cleaning up spilled milk, and picking up dirty clothes. While those are certainly humbling experiences, I find that the most profound instances of parental humility occur for me when I’m disciplining my children. Or more accurately, when I’m criticizing their behavior.

When I’m scolding any one of my four sons (not that I’m unwilling to scold daughters; I just don’t have any), I often find myself wondering why he acts the way he does. Being an extrovert, I usually verbalize my thoughts and ask something such as: “Where did you learn to act like that?” That’s when—if I’m being honest with myself—I realize that the answer to my semi-rhetorical question is that my son likely learned it from me. (It’s not that I’m unwilling to include my wife in this example; I’m afraid to).

Who Authorized Misbehavior?

I don’t really teach my sons to misbehave. It’s not as though I sit down and give them instructions on how to provoke their brothers, break dining room chairs, or talk back to their parents. But I must have done something to give them the idea that it would be okay to do those things—or more likely, that the consequences for doing so wouldn’t be significant.

In that moment of realization, I have a choice: I can either humble myself enough to acknowledge that the first person I need to address if I want to change my son’s behavior is me, or I can go on venting about how ornery he is and watch the orneriness continue.

The same thing happens to me—and to all leaders—at work. On a bad day, we often find ourselves complaining about something people in our organizations are doing. We turn to our colleagues on the leadership team (or our spouses) and vent. “The mid-level managers in this company are terrible at giving constructive feedback to their employees.” That’s just one of the common complaints I hear from executives.

Now, if we’re lucky enough to have a colleague on the management team, a consultant, or a spouse who is upfront with us—or if we are somehow struck with a blinding ray of humility in that moment—we will realize that we’re ultimately complaining about ourselves. As a consultant, my favorite way to remind leadership teams of this inescapable conclusion is to ask them: “How many of the people you’re complaining about report to someone outside of this room?”

The answer, of course, is “none.” Some executives quickly understand my point and accept the humble lesson that they’re ultimately responsible for the behavior of employees. But many push back. “Wait a second,” they argue. “Most of these managers work two or three levels below us. We can’t micromanage them and force them to give their people feedback.”

After I acknowledge the limited validity of their point, I usually ask, “O.K., so how good are you at giving constructive feedback to your direct reports?” If the leaders are humble enough to acknowledge that they’re not particularly good at it themselves (most are not) and that they can’t expect people to do something that they don’t do themselves, my point has been made.

Don’t Overlook “Sins of Omission”

But many will claim that they give plenty of feedback to their people, certainly much more than the mid-level managers they’re criticizing. For these most-stubborn leaders, the next question I ask—the most important one yet—is this: “So how diligent and painstaking are you about making your direct reports give their people feedback?”

Before I give them a chance to answer, I like to remind them about the concept of a “sin of omission,” the idea that many of the mistakes people make are not a function of what they’re doing wrong, but rather what they’re not doing right. See, in most organizations, the biggest problems arise not because leaders are actively promoting the wrong behavior, but rather because they’re passively doing so by allowing people to get away with such behavior with impunity.

The most common reason that leaders commit sins of omission is that they just don’t feel comfortable confronting people about what they are or are not doing. Instead, they look the other way and hope the problem goes away. When they see that the problem has spread throughout the organization, they really have no one to blame but themselves. This is a moment of great humility. And a moment of truth.

Great leaders, like great parents, will grit their teeth and accept the painful reality that they are almost always the reason something is awry in their organizations. They’ll accept the pain of being humbled and set themselves on a course of correction. In the end, their egos may suffer temporary bruises, but the organizations they lead will improve. Poor leaders, on the other hand, will try to protect their egos by continuing to blame others. Ultimately, their organizations will suffer and their egos will get much bigger bruises, the kind that last a long time.

All leaders—and for that matter, parents—need to seek out humbling opportunities, painful as they may be. Within that humility we will discover the reservoir of improvement and progress that we’re looking for, and that our organizations, families, and society so desperately want.

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