In the cult classic 1999 film “Office Space,” American corporate culture is depicted as a place where everyone is disingenuous to their colleagues and no one accepts blame when things go wrong. Mike Judge’s film is far from the only pop culture property to depict workplaces packed with figurative narcissists (if not literal ones). Similarly, “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams is best known for his comic strip satirizing office culture before he gained notoriety as a Donald Trump hype man. Trump himself has promoted the idea that lacking humility in the workplace is a virtue, from endangering himself and others by working while sick with COVID-19 to supporting credible threats of violence against his own Vice President.
But is being “braggadocious” the secret to success? Not so fast.
Scientifically speaking, it is best to be humble.
It turns out that showing respect for others, and being accountable for one’s own mistakes, is far healthier than toxicity for both individuals and businesses. Scientifically speaking, it is best to be humble.
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“Humble organizational culture can be seen when a company cultivates six norms,” Tiffany Maldonado, PhD — an assistant professor of management at Sam Houston State University — told Salon by email. According to Maldonado, these norms include:
- encouraging accurate, non-biased awareness of strengths and weaknesses
- being tolerant when employees make competent mistakes that are the result of innovative ideas — not flawed execution
- being transparent and honest with stakeholders
- being open to new ideas, even those that did not originate with upper management
- developing employees for continuous learning
- recognizing the achievements of employees in a meaningful way
Implicit in all of those objectives, of course, is having a work environment in which people respect one another in common sense ways. Not only that, the underlying theme in all of these concepts is a very specific application of humility — namely, a practical one. While one can debate whether it is moral to be humble, it’s vital to any system of honest and effective self-inventory. That applies both for organizations as a whole and for each individual within a given body.
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“In individuals, humilty is having a realistic assessment about one’s strengths and weaknesses,” Dusya Vera, Ph.D., Professor, Doctoral Coordinator, Department of Management and Leadership, C.T. Bauer College of Business, told Salon by email. “It is about having the self-awareness to know one’s contributions along with the contributions of others, which made one’s success possible.” For an organization to be humble in a productive way, it needs to pay attention to “humility in its recruitment, promotion, and development of individuals.”
These benefits, of course, can be achieved only if the humility demonstrated is genuine, which isn’t always the case.
“Daenerys is willing to accept feedback and surrounds herself with valuable advisors since she’s aware that she lacks certain skills.”
In a 2020 article for the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers found that employees could discern if their managers were being humble for self-serving reasons or out of genuine empathy. While the latter scenario was obviously beneficial, employees who did not believe there was a sincere sense of companionship with humble leaders exhibited “subordinate psychological entitlement, which in turn increases workplace deviance.” For humility in any organization to be effective, the people at the top must be viewed as acting in good faith when they reward achievement and accept personal blame, not exhibiting weakness or insincerity. The actions from those at the top of the organization create the environment in which everyone else works.
How do different levels of humility play out when it comes to leadership? Maldonado turned to the widely beloved TV show “Game of Thrones” to illustrate how sincere appreciation for and nurturing of others’ strengths can affect the outcome.
Hannah Waddingham and Lena Headey on “Game Of Thrones” (HBO/Macall B. Polay)“Cersei rarely listens to the advice of others, has high self-focus because everything is all about her, and she very rarely appreciates how others have contributed to her success,” Maldonado pointed out. On the show, this played out with Cersei rising high, but gaining plenty of enemies, including betrayals of those closest to her.
Maldonado added, “Daenerys is willing to accept feedback and surrounds herself with valuable advisors since she’s aware that she lacks certain skills (this willingness to learn has helped her garner entire armies and cities). Jon Snow has a low self-focus and thinks of others, yet he often rejects advice which can lead to risky behavior and the need for someone to save him (note Battle of the Bastards and Battle of Winterfell).”
Vera turned to an observation by business management expert Patrick Lencioni from his popular 2016 book “The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues.” He proposed that a good team player must be “humble, hungry and smart. Hungry is about drive and courage. Smart is about emotional intelligence (humanity). So, again, the most effective teams have individuals who have a combination of being humble, driven, courageous, and strong in emotional intelligence and humanity.”
Vera added, “People usually associate humility with weakness, lack of self-esteem, lack of confidence. But humility is about being self-aware and realistic about competences and contributions. You can be humble and ambitious, humble and driven, humble and courargeous, etc.”
For more Salon articles about psychology:
Fathers feed babies too — so why are they so scarce in media coverage of the formula shortage?
How to process the emotionally unthinkable when you’re too online
Shaming someone for their privilege is unlikely to change their politics, psychologists say
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