Stay humble, stay wise: fostering intellectual humility at the workplace

What do a business executive, a doctor, and a college professor have in common? Some would say the answer is intellectual humility.

Not many people realize this, but one of the biggest setbacks even in professions as diverse as these is the inability to admit that you are wrong. Without intellectual humility, business professionals may withhold their best ideas due to a fear of derision, doctors are unlikely to consult with other specialists for fear of their diagnostic opinion being undervalued, and professors would be unwilling to explore new research that may prove their earlier findings wrong.

So how can professionals and leaders avoid the trap of intellectual hubris and find opportunities to practice the kind of humility that can foster innovation and collaboration?

Acknowledge uncertainties at work

As more and more organizations venture into new product development, uncharted territories, and disruptive markets, they begin to realize that there are no right or wrong answers at work anymore. The failure to acknowledge this uncertainty can lead to problems. As Maurice Schweitzer, professor at Wharton, points out, “Leaders may reward good outcomes rather than good decisions and punish bad outcomes rather than bad decisions.”

In such a context, the strategy needs to be informed by intellectual humility. For example, there may not be enough evidence to back a certain product formulation or a marketing tactic. Acknowledging this may help all stakeholders understand the need for a pilot.

Create a safe space to admit when things go wrong

A personality psychologist from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Julia Rohrer started the Loss of Confidence Project, a safe space for members of the academic community to admit when their previous research may have been wrong. When a manager says, “I made a mistake,” he or she creates opportunities to do things correctly in the future. Many leaders, John F. Kennedy among them, apologized whenever they made a mistake, setting a precedent for their employees to follow.

Be willing to ask for help

Acknowledging one’s limited expertise is the first step towards finding the skills and knowledge needed to create a product or service or to move a project forward. Having such intellectual humility means that one can then ask for help, the right way, as Nancy F. Clark, CEO of PositivityDaily, points out.

Increasingly, business leaders are joining psychologists and philosophers in the belief that intellectual humility is a desirable trait. Laszlo Bock, former VP for Hiring at Google and founder of Humu, declared it to be one of the top qualities in a candidate, claiming that without intellectual humility, “you are unable to learn.” So how will you foster intellectual humility among yourself and your team?

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