The Power of Humility

January 14, 2019 Nick Martin

Humility is not a term we usually associate with successful business leaders. Traditional archetypes of leaders invoke imagery of charismatic individuals. Self-serving. Manipulative. Grabbing the glory and spotlight for themselves.

And yet, we’ve seen again and again how disastrous the consequences of a lack of humility at the top can be.

Only 30% of employees in a recent survey said they see their CEO as having the qualities of a moral leader, while only 14% said their leaders almost always acknowledge their failings, and a paltry 6% said that their leaders ask for help in a way that exposes their vulnerability.

Some leaders may fear that showing humility can make them seem weak, lacking in confidence or decisiveness, or having an unwillingness to take risks. But humility is actually crucial to being a good, effective leader. Here’s a look at why humility matters, how to identify workers with this critical trait and how to cultivate it in your organization.

Why humility matters

Humility allows people to be open to the possibility of making a mistake. It’s an integral part of moral leadership. If you're lacking in humility, you're less likely to recognize the potential for errors or mistakes in your work or decisions.

Humility can moderate some of the potential ethical dangers inherent in the use of technology. A recognition of the ethical implications of decisions and a willingness to look for potential bias, errors or poor judgment can go a long way toward addressing these potential risks.

For leaders, humility can provide a balance to the self-serving behaviors that often drive them to be successful. Humble and modest leaders are willing to admit their mistakes, put aside their ego and empower others. And that makes them better, more successful moral leaders.

Cultivating humility

The first step for organizations that want to cultivate humility in their workforce is to agree that humility is a key characteristic of successful leadership. What does humility mean for your organizational culture?

Once there’s a collective understanding of what this behavior looks like, screening processes can be developed to identify this trait in potential talent. One key to this process is recognizing that socially desirable behaviors are culturally dependent. For example, what humility looks like in the US can be very different from how it looks in Japan or Argentina.

Assessments should take into account those cultural variations in determining the metrics used to measure the trait. Building cultural-based norms into the assessment of this characteristic is key to capturing the socially desirable behavior for that particular group.

Make humility a core value

One of your first steps should be to involve hiring managers and the decision-makers in your organization in communicating the value and importance of humility and, most importantly, engaging in these behaviors.

The next step is to put the behavior to a test. Look empirically at the data to understand how well humility relates to performance. What's the return on investment achieved by measuring and assessing this concept? What value does it bring to your business?

But this isn’t just about financial ROI. Are your employees happier being part of an organization that values this trait? Are you seeing higher levels of engagement as a result of focusing on these concepts and targeting humility in your hiring?

Cultural fit matters when it comes to hiring and retaining workers. It’s important to make sure that you're bringing in people who fit your company culture, especially if your organization has a global footprint.

To learn more about assessing for humility click here.

About the Author

Nick Martin

Dr. Nick Martin leads the Global Products & Analytics team, part of Aon’s Assessment Solutions Group and is responsible for the development of next generation assessment solutions and predictive analytics. He leads a team responsible for leveraging the latest science and practical findings to provide Aon’s diverse client base with assessment and analytical solutions that meet their hiring needs, helping to ensure their candidates’ experiences support their overall business mission and goals. Nick has extensive experience developing and implementing assessment-based hiring programs, as well as assessment tools including cognitive ability and personality tests, structured interviews, role-play-based simulations for positions spanning entry-level to C-suite executive roles, and 360-degree and high-potential leadership assessments. Prior to joining Aon, Nick worked as a Federal consultant for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and served as a program manager for the USA Hire selection program and has also worked as an independent consultant. He received his Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and a M.A. in Human Resource Management from The George Washington University. He has co-authored book chapters and numerous articles published in academic journals and the popular press and presented at numerous professional conferences. In addition, he is a member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, the Austin Area I-O Psychology Association, and the American Psychological Association.

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