Humility, or being humble, is a characteristic which is sometimes perceived to be a barrier to success, a weakness even. It can suggest that you sell yourself short. That you put yourself down when comparing against others. That you don’t think as highly of yourself as you should. And can result in personal behaviors and attitudes which don’t exactly talk to your strengths or show your best side.
However, this is misleading. Because inner humility – the kind of that comes from within, rather of that what you might display outwardly – isn’t like this. Inner humility from the perspective of neuroscience and the brain is a positive asset that should be considered as highly desirable, sought after, and encouraged throughout an organisation.
So what do we mean by humility?
What is humility?
In lay terms, humility means being modest, but from a scientific perspective, researchers have identified what they call the “hallmarks” of humility.
There are five main hallmarks which have been identified, and it makes fairly impressive reading.
- A secure, accepting identity: Having humility means you have a calm, accepting idea of who you are, and you aren’t hypersensitive to threats to your self-image or self-esteem. Research suggests that when you have a confused or fuzzy image of yourself, then you are often more concerned about the evaluations of others and have a tendency to ruminate about yourself.
- Freedom from distortion: Humble people can perceive themselves and others more clearly, and don’t feel the need to exaggerate themselves in a way that is either self-enhancing or in a way that de-values themselves. Humble people can therefore honestly reflect on and consider both their strengths and weaknesses and accept responsibility for their mistakes.
- Openness to new information: When you have humility, it means that you are open to discovering new insights about yourself and the world around you. You are teachable, and you seek the truth, even when it may be personally embarrassing or unflattering to you.
- Other-focus: Humble people have a lack of self-focus and an increased awareness of, and appreciation for, others. As CS Lewis once said, humility is “not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less”. It is about being free from the need to boost your ego and being genuinely happy when others excel.
- Equality beliefs: Being humble is about seeing that others have the same intrinsic value and importance as yourself. A kind of cognitive form of empathy which means you share resources and don’t end up dominating or exploiting others.
So you can see that inner humility is not just about how you think about yourself, but it is also about how you think about others.
Moreover, from the perspective of an organisation, employing people who score highly on humility means you are on your way to creating working environments which are strong, stable and enjoyable to work in. Where the workplace isn’t dominated by over-inflated egos, arrogance or putting others down, but is instead based on values of equality, resilience, and a drive for self-improvement (to name a few).
So how can you improve humility in yourself or others?
Researchers don’t yet know all the answers, but one pointer that they do provide is that of expressing gratitude – in other words, the ability to recognize and acknowledge that you have benefited from the actions of others. For example, studies have shown that there is an upward spiral between gratitude and humility. That they are mutually reinforcing. Moreover, by showing gratitude, even by a simple act such as writing a letter of thanks, you are in turn helping to improve your humility.
More generally, humility is one of a whole set of prosocial behaviors and attitudes which facilitate positive social interactions between employees and which can, therefore, be beneficial to an organisation. They help to build better teams. They promote empathy between individuals. They strengthen client relationships. They improve productivity. And they create a more pleasant working environment. A win-win all round.