Humility Is the New Key to Success

In the 21st-century ‘ideas economy,’ success depends on how well we can listen, learn and collaborate with others – and a big ego can be a leader’s downfall 

by Edward D. Hess

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Not so long ago, our culture really (really) admired people with big egos. We called them rugged individualists, fearless leaders, MVPs, visionaries and go-getters. We respected these confident and successful folks for (seemingly) having all the answers. They were all too happy to stand their ground and argue their point, and we saw this as a sign of strength and leadership.

Now, everything has changed. Larger-than-life egos are fast becoming liabilities. Indeed, in what may first appear to be a paradox, ego’s mortal enemy — humility — is one of the traits most likely to guarantee success in the 21st century workplace.

In the tech tsunami of the next few decades, robots and smart machines are projected to take over more than half of U.S. jobs. The jobs that will still be “safe” involve higher-order cognitive and emotional skills that technology can’t replicate, like critical thinking, innovation, creativity and emotionally engaging with other humans. All of those skills have one thing in common: They are enabled by humility.

Skeptical? Ask yourself this: Have you ever met someone with a big ego who was really good at being open-minded? Really good at reflectively listening? At putting himself in another’s shoes? At playing well with others? At saying, “I don’t know,” “Your idea is better than mine,” or, “You’re right”? Didn’t think so.

Clearly, those who want to be an effective leader (or even a successful employee) in our brave new workplace are going to have to rein in their ego and become more team-oriented. And make no mistake — it won’t be easy. We’re talking about self-work that’s never finished. For one thing, ego-based thinking is our brain’s default position — we naturally seek to reinforce what we already think we know. Also, we have to overcome a lifetime of cultural and behavioral big-ego conditioning. But if we’re to stay competitive in the Smart Machine Age, it has to happen!

The journey to becoming a more humble person will not be short. It will take persistent hard work. But with humility comes more meaningful relationships, better opportunities and, of course, an increased chance of staying relevant and competitive in the Smart Machine Age. In that age, individualism and internal competition will be out, and teamwork will be in. Self-promotion will be out, and self-reflection will be in. Knowing it all will be out, and being good at not knowing will be in.

In short, humility will be needed to maximize one’s effectiveness at thinking, listening, relating and collaborating. I offer a few suggestions below.

You will need others to help you outthink a smart machine!

Seven Suggestions to Help You Hone Your Humility

First, know you’ll have to work against your brain’s natural inclinations. Quieting our egos actually goes against our very nature! Cognitively, we humans are wired to selectively process only information that is confirmatory — and selectively filter out information that contradicts what we “know” to be “right.” In addition, we’re lazy, self-serving and emotionally defensive thinkers who are driven to protect our egos.

However, the science is quite clear that high-level and innovative thinking is a team sport. In order to learn, adapt and succeed, we have to be willing to look closely at our mistakes and failures, to really listen to people who disagree with us, and to allow the best thinking and best ideas to rise to the top — which requires humility!

Seek objective feedback about your ego. You can’t troubleshoot your ego if you don’t have an accurate picture of what it looks like. Since this isn’t an area in which you can trust your own judgment, have the courage to get people who know you well at work and in your personal life to fill out a 360-degree review about you — one that focuses on your emotional intelligence and your behaviors concerning open-mindedness, listening, empathy, humility, et cetera.

After receiving the data, evaluate it with a trusted other. Thank everyone who had the courage to give you honest feedback. Reflect on the picture you received and decide what you want to do with that data.

Change your mental model of what “smart” looks like. In the past, “smartness” has been determined by the size of one’s body of knowledge. Not knowing the “right” answer was — and often still is — a big blow to the ego. But today, we already have instant access to all the knowledge we want, thanks to “companions” like Google and Siri. The “new smart” means knowing what you don’t know and knowing how to learn it, being able to ask the right questions, and being able to examine the answers critically. Engage in collaboration, seek out feedback and ask for help daily. That will push you toward developing the humility and empathy you’ll need to “win” in the new game.

Learn to put yourself in others’ shoes. Research says one way to become less self-absorbed and more open to the experiences of others is to actively work on being more empathetic and compassionate. Thinking of how others helped you and saying “thank you” on a daily basis is a positive way to begin the process. Reflecting on the people who add joy to your life helps, too.

I have found active listening to be important. When I focus all of my attention on what someone else is saying instead of on formulating my own response, my understanding of the situation grows — and, often, so does the amount of empathy I feel.

Remember, you don’t have to fully agree with someone’s opinion or actions to still treat them with compassion. Disagreeing with humility still leaves the lines of communication open and allows teamwork to happen in the future.

Quiet your mind to stay in the moment. Attention-focused meditation is a time-honored method of calming one’s inner self-intensity. Fully engaging with your current experience — as opposed to ruminating on the past or worrying about the future — enables you to maintain a balanced, healthy perspective. Staying in and responding to the present moment is also a powerful safeguard against ego-driven misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

Stop letting fear drive your decisions. Being okay with being wrong is a necessary and important part of developing humility. Fear of failure, fear of looking bad, fear of embarrassment, fear of a loss of status, fear of not being liked and fear of losing one’s job all inhibit the kind of learning, innovation and collaboration that’s essential for your long-term job security. To proceed more fearlessly into the future, you need to understand that learning is not an efficient 99-percent defect-free process — so mistakes have to be valued as learning opportunities.

The faster and better you are at turning mistakes into learning opportunities, the less likely it is that you will be replaced by some machine. Having an ego that’s not afraid to acknowledge mistakes, confront weaknesses and test assumptions is a reliable strategy for long-term success.

Grade yourself daily. There’s a reason why to-do lists are so popular: They work! Create a checklist of reminders about the need to be humble, open-minded, empathetic, a good listener or any other ego-mitigating quality you wish to work on. Make the list as detailed as possible. Review it before every meeting and grade yourself at the end of each meeting. For example, if you want to work on being a better listener, your list might include the following tasks:

  • Do not interrupt others.
  • Suspend judgment.
  • Do not think about your response while the other person is still talking.
  • Do not automatically advocate your views in your first response.
  • Ask questions to make sure you understand the other person.
  • Ask if you can paraphrase what the other person said to make sure you heard him correctly.
  • Really try to understand the reasons the other person believes what he believes.

To start, pick two behaviors you want to change. Seek the help of trusted others in creating your checklist and ask for their help in holding you accountable. Give them permission to call you out when they see you acting in opposition to your desired new behaviors.

Learn-or-DieEdward D. Hess is a professor of business administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization, released last year through Columbia Business School Publishing is the 11th book he has authored.

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