Although humility is a universal virtue, it’s also quite rare. How many times a day do you meet people who seem remarkably humble? How often do you tell your work colleagues–or boss–that they should think more highly of themselves? And when was the last time you saw a famous businessperson or politician display genuine signs of modesty, self-criticism, or self-doubt?
Recent scientific research suggests that there’s a clear business case for humility. When we appoint humble people to leadership roles, they are less likely to damage their teams and organizations. Companies suffer more from hiring toxic individuals than they benefit from hiring superstars. In fact, even narcissistic leaders will be able to exert a positive influence on their teams and organizations when they have some humility (yes, it is possible to be both narcissistic and humble at the same time).
We would probably not value humility as much if we had it in abundance. Or perhaps the bigger issue is that while we do like and value humility, we are actually more seduced by charisma, confidence, and arrogance. Alarmingly, recent research suggests that we are so captivated by arrogance, that we are happy to reward it even when we know its coupled with incompetence. That is, even when we know that people are not as good as they think, we are seduced by their hubris and prefer them to people who are self-aware, let alone modest. This is why we often end up selecting incompetent men over competent women for leadership roles.
If you are a woman, you will face a double-blind or lose-lose situation. If you are too assertive, you will end up being less likable, and if you are self-critical, humble, and caring, you will not be seen as leadership material. But even men pay a high price for displaying humility because it’s usually perceived as too feminine to match our overly masculine—and flawed—leadership archetypes.
In a perfect world, people would advance their careers because of their competence rather than confidence, and when two individuals are equally competent, we would actually prefer the less arrogant person. In reality, the very trait that we like to revere may end up hindering career success because we are more likely to punish humility than reward it, even if we still like the idea of successful people being humble.
Here are three signs that humility may be working against you in your career.
You rarely speak unless you have something to say
Only in a world that mistakes activity with productivity and assertiveness with talent could Susan’s Cain Quiet book create a revolution. Yes, America, it is okay to be introverted—as are at least a third of the population. As Pythagoras noted: “Be silent and let thy words be worth more than silence.” How many fewer meetings, questions, presentations, and calls would we have if people only spoke when they had something important to say? And yet, you are more likely to be punished than rewarded for staying quiet when you should. It’s as if we needed to be entertained or deceived by self-aggrandizing performers, which explains the contagious nature of this tragic phenomenon.
You have trouble accepting positive feedback
Most people are pre-wired to attend to information that inflates their ego and to ignore information that deflates it. This problem is exacerbated by living in a world where people are far more likely to provide fake positive feedback than honest negative feedback. For example, most managers struggle with telling their employees about their limitations. This makes employees think they are better than they actually are.
All this indicates that there should be a premium on people who are capable of seeking out and digesting honest and constructive criticism. In fact, these two behaviors are a true sign of humility, because they suggest that you probably don’t believe your own hype, that your main goal is to learn and get better rather than show off, and that you are more interested in your personal growth and development than in bull**ing your way up.
You often feel like a fraud, to the point of being your worst critic
This condition, referred to as impostor syndrome, is usually regarded as undesirable and pathological. Given the choice, however, it would be much better to have high-performing leaders who are excessively self-critical than low-performing leaders with an unstoppable capacity for self-admiration. Of course, few people would get chosen in a job interview once they started listing their flaws and limitations without any filters or concerns for impression management. But is it really okay to reward those who are most able to hide their defects, perhaps because they are unaware of it?
If you tick these three boxes, then the bad news is that your personality may be a big handicap to your career, even though it should be an asset. The world needs more people like you and fewer people with the opposite traits. You need to stay the same, and we need to find a way to fix the world. Or perhaps that is part of Elon Musk’s and Jeff Bezos’s plan of colonizing other planets, even if that plan does not seem a product of their own humility.