The very concept of humility can make us queasy. In this self-promotional era of social media flaunting and positive thinking, to be humble can seem at best to put us at a competitive disadvantage, at worst, to seem hollow. As Jane Austen put it, “Nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility.”
To understand humility, it’s helpful to first take a look at its lesser twin, pride. Not the kind of pride in which we maintain a healthy self-regard or feel satisfaction in a job well done, but the excessive pride of an inflated sense of self. What 17th-century philosopher Spinoza described as, “thinking more highly of oneself than is just.”
In Christian teachings pride was condemned as one of the Seven Deadly Sins, but according to modern research, it is the result of a dizzying array of cognitive distortions from illusory superiority to egocentrism, including a host of skewed tricks of the mind such as the confirmation bias, hindsight bias, overconfidence phenomenon and gambler’s fallacy. Numerous studies have shown that we construct and reconstruct our opinions, memories and self-worth relative to others in order to flatter ourselves. In other words, pride is our default setting, causing us to warp the raw data of reality in order to convince ourselves that we are better than we actually are.
But pride and humility are sibling traits of self-evaluation. How prideful or humble we are affects how we rate ourselves, our accomplishments and failures, and ultimately how we assess our place in the world. To exaggerate our faults is as inaccurate a self-appraisal as thinking too highly of ourselves. June Price Tangney, a psychology professor and leading researcher of moral emotions and cognitions at George Mason University describes what she considers to be true humility this way: Having the ability to acknowledge our mistakes and limitations, having an openness to new ideas, and being able to maintain a realistic perspective of our place in the larger world.
It’s a mindset that allows us to scan for self-deception and seek out self-truth.
Research hints at why so many of us get the pride-humility balance wrong. It’s a cognitive imbalance known as the Dunning-Kruger effect named for the psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University who studied students, medical residents, and hunters and concluded that the less competent one is at a given skill, the more likely he or she is to overinflate their level of skill and discount the skill levels of others. “People who are unskilled…suffer a dual burden,” Drs. Dunning and Kruger note in their report. “Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”
In other words, incompetence, ignorance and pride are of a piece, feeding on each other. The good news, Dunning and Kruger say, is that, “improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.”
So the better we get at what we do, the more understanding we have of those skills and the more humble we become about them. That’s the hope anyway.
From a book we wrote on success, we saw this again and again among the high achievers who told us that true humility was integral to their success. By overcoming their own self-serving biases, they were able to process information more accurately, which in turn led to better decisions, actions, and outcomes:
Gary Noesner former FBI chief negotiator told us that despite his decades of experience operating in the high-pressure environment of FBI hostage negotiation where a split second decisions could be a matter of life or death, he recognized that he alone was not the font of all wisdom. Even though many of the members of his team had far less experience, in order to challenge his own perception of a given situation, Mr. Noesner insisted on their input, telling them, “Not only do I want your take; I need your take.”
Opera superstar Anna Netrebko, too, was emphatic explaining exactly why playing the part of a preening, self-absorbed diva does not lead to a great performance. From the moment she meets cast and crew on a new production, Netrebko said, she fosters an atmosphere of cooperation and bonhomie. “There is so much that can go wrong on stage, someone gets sick, gets lost or forgets the words,” Ms. Netrebko told us. “No matter how big or small your role, you have to be attuned to your fellow performers to hold it together for each other.”
Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, also readily acknowledged his limitations as a leader. He put it succinctly when he said, “My goal as CEO is to make as few decisions as possible. The best decisions are made from the ground up.”
And finally, we asked Alec Baldwin about his role in the success of 30 Rock. He gave credit to the show's writers and in fact only agreed to be interviewed along with the show's co-head-writer and show runner Robert Carlock. They both credited the show's success to a vital interdependence. Likening their relationship to a “singer/songwriter kind of thing.” Mr. Baldwin told us, “I’m just getting up there and saying the lines they write and giving them everything I got.”
While any one individual’s self-serving biases can poison the dynamics of a group, when people in an organization, family, or group practice a truth-seeking humility—like Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Carlock—the better the chances of their shared endeavor being a smash success.