Culture of Humility

April 20, 2021

“All streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power. If you want to govern the people, you must place yourself below them.” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

I recently read a fascinating study completed by Catalyst Research Center, a non-profit research group, on inclusive leadership.

What caught my attention about this study was that it looked at behaviors associated with humility across six different countries and cultures: US, Mexico, India, Germany, China, and Australia. In every country, employees who experienced a leader who created a culture of humility displayed greater innovation – making suggestions about new product ideas and improving procedures, and displayed more “team citizenship” behaviors – going beyond what was reasonably expected of them, what I call quintessence. These findings were true for both men and women across countries and cultures.

The study also went on identify two specific sentiments these employees felt in a culture of humility: Uniqueness and Belongingness. They define uniqueness as the distinct qualities and skillsets they bring to the team. Anyone who has heard me speak or read Culture Trumps Everything will recognize this concept as what I call Competence. Employees want to build their skillsets and know that they are valued and significant. Belongingness, the authors describe as sharing a common connection with coworkers. To belong to something larger than ourselves is a primary human drive. I believe this is achieved by an organization having a common and shared Cause – how the product or service of the organization changes the world or changes human experience in the world.

So, what are the behaviors that leaders should adopt to create a culture of humility and reap its rewards of innovation and citizen behaviors?

  1. Share Vulnerability: Leaders should share their mistakes as “learning opportunities” or “teachable moments.” When leadership displays vulnerability through fallibility, sharing struggles and growth, it makes it legitimate for others to grow and struggle as well.
  2. Dialog (rather than debate): Many times leaders are invested in “winning” – an argument, a position, a point of view – convincing others that theirs is the “right” way. Dialog requires a genuine understanding of another’s point of view. It requires the suspension of the leader’s own agenda and point of view. Using dialog, the leader enhances his/her own understanding, learns another point of view, and validates a follower’s unique perspective.
  3. Embrace Ambiguity: With the rapid rate of technological change and competition, business environments are rife with ambiguity and uncertainty. Embrace them! By humbly admitting that you do not have all the answers you create a space for other members of your team to find a solution. It also creates the experience of interdependence. All of us are smarter than any one of us.
  4. Share the Leadership Role: By allowing some of your team members to take the leadership role on a task or a project, you (as a leader) empower others to become leaders by helping team members experience leadership. You also role model the taking of different perspectives, both leader and team member.

Go forth and bring some humility into your culture…

Let’s cultivate our culture – together!

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