Don’t mistake the recent dishonorable departure of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick as an isolated incident. It’s a sign of something bigger — and something that often goes unacknowledged in today’s business world.
Beneath the “office casual” surface of modern business life, unshakable confidence still reigns as the unspoken ideal.
The World Is Bigger Than Our Egos
The business startups we glorify and emulate are often led by uber-confident (pun intended) mavericks intent on changing (or conquering) the world. Even corporate board-members — meant to be guardians of sound judgement — are susceptible. Recent research from Harvard Business School shows that even the most seasoned boards display a bias towards testosterone-fueled CEOs who rely on brash decision-making to navigate challenges.
It’s clear that the allure of hyper-confidence is still deeply valued in the halls and open-plan floor spaces across the corporate landscape. But is it really good for business?
According to a growing body of research and practices, it isn't. In fact, it turns out that the quality we should all be striving for in these uncertain, unpredictable times is not hubris but it’s opposite: humility.
At first blush, the word “humility” may conjure up negative images of meekness or submissiveness. But true humility — defined as “possessing a modest view of one’s own importance” — is actually a sign of inner strength. It stems from a belief the world is bigger than our own egos and expertise. That outside input and criticism are fundamental for growth. That openness to new lessons and new ideas is valuable.
The Power of Humility
This mindset can be a powerful asset in today’s fast-changing business environment.
Humility allows leaders and teams to hold an accurate and realistic view of their brand, products and organization — warts and all. It allows for honest assessment of what has gone well and what hasn’t. And, crucially, it creates an openness to positive change.
This mindset aligns well with the Lean Startup ethos of test-learn-optimize-repeat that is now being widely adopted. It leads to a stronger focus on customers. Ultimately, it sets your organization on the path to continuous improvement.
Good Ideas Can Come from Anywhere
Humility allows great ideas to come from anywhere within the organization. In his book, "Creativity, Inc.," Ed Catmull writes about creating a culture of creativity at Pixar, where all 200 to 250 people in the production group are encouraged to make suggestions to improve the project they’re working on — not just the director and the other creative leaders.
Accepting ideas and critical feedback from all parts of the organization requires senior management to put their pride aside and admit that no one person has all the answers. Classical scholar Benjamin Jowett put it well when he said, “The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit.”
A crucial component of humility is the ability to put aside your desire to save face and admit fault. Netflix boss Reed Hastings demonstrated this when he made a candid public apology for a sudden price hike: “I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation …. in hindsight, I slid into arrogance based on past success.”
Admitting error earns and builds trust amongst employees, customers and shareholders. It also allows for better and quicker decision making — unobstructed by too much pride.
A humble mindset is more open to ambiguity and experimentation. In our data-driven work culture, we often seek certainty in decision making. But humility accepts that not everything can be known beforehand. It places emphasis on assessing the situation and taking calculated risks. It acknowledges that many business decisions are essentially well-informed bets.
When this mindset takes root, it creates an environment where ingenuity can thrive and innovation can happen. Where new ideas and experiments can come to life free from the need to prove or espouse absolute certainty.
Unlock the Benefits of Humility
Here are a few tips for tapping the power of humility and unlocking these benefits in your own team and organization:
- Lead by Example — Leaders must do more than espouse the benefits of humility and openness. They must practice these things themselves — admitting their limits and mistakes and demonstrating their capacity to putting continuous learning and improvement ahead of pride.
- Invest in Insights — Invest in customer research and insights and put in place practices and processes that help turn these insights into improvements. It’s about putting your own opinions aside and placing customers in the driver’s seat.
- Hire and Create Diverse Teams — Create an environment where healthy creative tensions will arise naturally. Bring together people from a wide range of backgrounds, skill sets and perspectives and make it clear that all voices are welcome. Your team and organization will be smarter for it.
- Pause and Reflect — Run project retrospectives or post mortems consistently. Make time to look back on what worked and what didn’t, identifying ways to improve for next time.
- Resist Kool Aid Culture — Not getting pushback? Be afraid. Pushback signals thinking and analysis. In workplace cultures that favor prompt action, teams may naturally push past their doubts and plough ahead, even if the direction is wrong. Ensure thinking is encouraged and rewarded alongside doing. You’ll save time and resources in the long run.