Social media today encourages us to feel that our appearance, our social lives, even the food that we eat must be awesome 24/7. Our personal brand should be worthy of acclaim. Many of us measure ourselves by the online followers we have.
The very thought of being humble seems to pull against this culture of awesomeness. Humility seems “old school.” Yet, humility is a quality worth cultivating. It draws people to you. The word “humility” derives from the Latin word “humus” meaning “earth.” Humility literally means being grounded. It means being so sure of yourself that you don’t have to call undo attention to yourself.
Humility need not be viewed as weakness or sign of insecurity. Quite the opposite. The right kind of humility allows you to make a great impression whether you’re in a job interview, working in an organization, or socializing with friends.
Here are five qualities that will allow you to project well-grounded humility:
A good start is being careful about relying too heavily on “I statements.”
Few people want to be around someone who keeps waving the “I” flag, and who tells everyone “I did this” or “I’m making a big salary.”
When hiring people for my firm, I’m conscious how many times people use “I” in their emails or in a face-to-face interview. If their communication has an overdose of “I”s, I’ll steer clear. It’s a simple way of telling whether they’re focused on themselves or on others.
But a word of caution: Don’t go so far in avoiding “I’s” that you drape yourself in the “It wasn’t me” cloak. Saying “I wish I could take credit for that project, but it was not on my watch,” rings of insincerity.
A second quality of true humility is modesty. I know someone who epitomizes this quality, by being able to talk about her accomplishments in a modest way. She once told a story at a networking event when guests were asked to say something about themselves. She told of how she’d been on every girls’ team in engineering school—basketball, soccer, and hockey. That might have sounded boastful, but she told it jokingly, saying she was picked for all these teams because there were so few women in engineering.
The point is: Talk about your accomplishments, but do so without bragging. You can lay them out, be proud of them, but explain your achievements in a slightly self-deprecating way. Bringing a sense of humor can help.
Just beware not to undercut yourself with too heavy a dose of modesty, which can happen if you fail to bring forward your accomplishments.
A third way to project humility is to show your true self—flaws and all. Elon Musk, however you might feel about him, has a beautiful capacity for this personal honesty. He’s the first to admit that everything he creates is not perfect, despite the fact that he spends an extraordinary amount of time preparing his products for the market.
When the Tesla Cybertruck was unveiled, both the windows on the truck shattered after Musk asked the chief of design to throw a metal ball at them. Musk had called them “shatterproof.” He could have been shocked—his expletives suggested he was—but he admitted the flaws and followed up explaining the reason behind the embarrassing moment. He was not trying to hide from it.
You can apply a similar technique. If you’re in a job interview, don’t try to sound perfect. Nobody will believe you. In fact, when recruiters ask—as they often do—“what was your biggest failure?” they want an honest answer. They want to know that you faced the facts and were resilient enough to pick yourself up and begin anew. Have that answer ready.
Just don’t carry this flaws-and-all style so far that you focus unnecessarily on negatives, or undercut yourself for no reason.
A fourth quality of humility is graciousness—acknowledging the contributions of others. Everyone knows that nothing gets done by one person alone. Successful people have support systems—at home, in the office, in the community, and in their industry. We have bosses, mentors, teams, colleagues, family, friends, and a host of others who have made our success possible. So acknowledge these individuals when you are discussing your own achievements.
You might say to your boss at a performance review, “I loved leading a team that was so focused on results. Together we achieved more than any of us had imagined.” Or in a job interview you might say, “My goal would be to support your organization with the strong sales skills I learned from some amazing mentors.”
Just be sure that in recognizing others you don’t minimize your own contribution. That could send a message of weakness or insecurity.
A fifth quality of humility is respect toward others. I have found that leaders with strong people skills show tremendous respect toward others. Instead of standing apart on a pedestal, they reach out to others at networking events. They listen carefully and don’t look down at people who are below them in the organization. They are typically respectful of people at all levels.
You, too, can show respect by treating others with kindness (respecting their feelings), showing up on time (respecting their schedule), keeping your commitments (respecting their trust), listening to them (respecting their ideas), and honoring their diversity (respecting their race, sexual orientation, and culture). Genuine respect is a gift to others, but it’s a gift that comes back to you in goodwill and returned respect.