Humility at work. Is it a lost art?

There are a number of influences afoot which seem to undermine humility at work and turn this skill into a lost art.

Firstly Television is riddled with egregious outpourings of egocentricity. The Apprentice is in a league of its own with the boastful claims of young hopefuls who then turn out to be skill free. The programme must encourage this behaviour as I can’t imagine that all participants would spontaneously exude this ‘puffery’. It’s ego at the expense of credibility…and no humility at work in sight.

Women were always known as the kinder, fairer, humbler sex. But women’s networks with their desire for gender equality have emphasised assertiveness to such an extent that some women in their desire for power have become ferocious. It is a major issue for those in a minority. How to gain parity without becoming superior?

I was running focus groups in the US with senior women in the Pharmaceutical industry. They were aggressive in pursuit of their careers as well as aggressive with me and I was only facilitating the diversity discussion. This experience led me to rethink the use of power as a leader. These women who clearly felt ‘hard done to’ by those in power, were trying to redress the balance with aggression they were calling assertiveness. I’m sure they would label their behaviour as standing up for their rights, refusing to be undermined, getting their point across. I experienced it as off putting, overpowering and unfeminine. They had lost the joy and advantage of being a woman in there pursuit for equality.

I remember being trained in Statisitcs for my doctorate by the best teacher I have ever encountered. His name was Tim. Statisitcs had never been my best subject and I had a tendency to glaze over when we had to discuss Factor Analysis or coefficients of something or other. When that happened he would say to me ‘ I’m so sorry you’re not getting this are you? My fault. Let me try to explain it more clearly.’ He apologised for my lack of understanding. This would be de trop in the feminist manifesto. However the result was that my statistical knowledge flourished and he even heard me explain Factor Analysis to another student. His apologetic style worked.

Likability is also a great influencer and part of likability I would contend is humility. Humility at work is a leveller, it is charming and human. It permits others to speak without feeling foolish. It is disarming. Think Columbo the TV detective. He used his humble approach to get his suspects to confess. ‘Help me understand this as I’m just a simple detective’ and every episode they talked. Just a TV programme but a good  example of style.

The opposite, rudeness, destroys trust and undermines work performance.  A 2011 study in the Bristish Psychological Journal looked not only at the effects of conflict on the recipient  but also on bystanders. The results are devastating. Not only does work performance suffer up to two days after the incident in the person to whom the rude comments are directed but those listening experience this loss as well. In addition it engenders a culture of reciprocal ‘getting back’. Not a healthy work environment.

Assertiveness at the expense of humility seems to be endemic in the western world. One of my coaches is Japanese working in America. She presented a paper at our Coaching School graduation about the overwhelming number of times she encountered the term ‘assertiveness’ with her coaching clients. It was her contention that the term covered a multitude of sins and was wildly misunderstood. Assertiveness ranged she contended from simply speaking up to aggressive paranoia. In Japan there is no equivalent concept. All communication is respectful and humble with no one wanting to gain the upper hand.

So bring back humility at work as a style of interaction.

Top Tips on Humility at Work

  • There is nothing wrong with apologising when you take up someone’s time or interrupt others.
  • Giving others their place and apologising if they don’t understand you is a great influencing skill.
  • For women… please relax about your power and position. You may have had to claw your way to the top but now that you have arrived be likeable. You can be feminine and a feminist!
  • For men ego is isolating, undermining and wins no friends. Think Columbo…


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