I’ve had the good fortune of meeting with a very large number of IT luminaries, CEOs, CIOs, company founders and others over the years who have had an enormous impact not only in IT, but in business, education, government and society as a whole. I can tell you that almost without exception, the ones who impressed me the most, and who I’ve found to have had the greatest impact, are the ones who are most humble.
So it was with a great deal of interest that I recently learned of a business professor who also appears to have recognized the value of that trait. Edward D. Hess is a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business and author of “Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization.” I was particularly struck by an observation Hess made with respect to humility as an enabler.
“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,” he said. “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.”
My thinking is that we could all use some advice on how we can nurture that quality in ourselves, so I’m happy to share seven suggestions Hess has come up with to help:
- Know that you’ll have to work against your brain’s natural inclinations. Quieting our egos actually goes against our very natures. Cognitively, we humans are wired to selectively process only information that is confirmatory—and to 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 in showing 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, etc. Explain why you need honest answers. Emphasize how appreciative you will be if they are honest, and that candor will not diminish the relationship. 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. As the legendary hedge fund investor Ray Dalio said, “We are all dumb shits.” We are all suboptimal thinkers. Only those of us who can graciously and humbly admit that we don’t know it all will succeed in this new world. So change how you keep score. 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. At the same time, remember that you don’t have to fully agree with someone’s opinion or actions to still treat him or her 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. 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. Personally, I have found that meditation makes me more aware of my physical reactions—breathing and heart rate. I now know that when my internal motor gets running really fast, I tend to revert to a “me” syndrome, and that I need to deliberately slow myself down so that I can exhibit more calmness and openness to others. I have come to understand that as a teammate and as a leader, I don’t have to be right all the time, or be the center of attention all the time—but I do have to work with others to arrive at the best answer.
- Stop letting fear drive your decisions. We often play it safe because we don’t want to look dumb, be wrong, or fail spectacularly in front of our friends and colleagues. In other words, we’re afraid of making mistakes and bruising our egos. Being OK 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, and 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.
- Really focus on understanding the other person.
- 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 or her correctly.
- Really try to understand the reasons the other person believes what he or she believes.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.