In recent years, more and more leaders seem to be jeopardizing their company’s survival for the sake of ego, hubris, or selfish gain. We’ve seen Wells Fargo enable the creation of over a million fraudulent accounts that earned more than $2 million in fees for the bank, pharmaceutical firm Perrigo face a price collusion investigation, Samsung executives be accused of bribery and embezzlement, and Equifax executives profit by selling their shares before news of a massive data breach.
What qualities should we be looking for in our leaders that will prevent scandals and promote success?
Humble leadership is characterized by a willingness to see the self accurately, an appreciation of the strengths and contributions of others, and openness to advice and feedback. Research suggests that humble people are more generous and helpful and humble leaders may engage employees more and help teams be more integrated. Humble leaders aren’t meek or unable to make tough decisions—in fact, we see humility as the midpoint between the two extremes of arrogance and lack of self-esteem.
“A person can be humble and competitive or humble and ambitious at the same time, which contradicts common—but mistaken—views about humility,” one of us wrote in 2004 with researcher Antonio Rodriguez-Lopez. “Humility is a critical strength for leaders . . . possessing it, and a dangerous weakness for those lacking it.”
And humility isn’t just important for individual leaders. In our latest research, we investigated what it would mean for the whole culture of a company to be humble. By examining existing measures of leader and team humility and then observing organizations with humble leaders, we were able to identify six factors that describe humility as an organizational characteristic. If you want to improve your organizational culture, cultivating the six norms below can help your workplace embrace the generosity, cohesion, and learning that lead to success.
1. Accurate awareness
Many companies often fall into the trap of overinflating their strengths and underestimating their weaknesses, which can lead to poor management decisions and even organizational failure. The norm of accurate awareness refers to the organization and its employees making non-biased, clear-headed assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of themselves and others.
For example, PepsiCo recently confronted the fact that its products, such as sugar-heavy sodas and high-calorie snacks, are partially responsible for unhealthy habits and obesity in consumers. As a result of this impartial assessment of its weakness, PepsiCo began to adopt changes to its products and recipes to align with consumer concerns, such as offering more lower-calorie options and reducing the amount of sugar in existing products.
To cultivate a norm of accurate awareness, your company should help employees understand your mission statement and perform regular SWOT analyses: assessments of the firm’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. As a result, you’ll be in a better position to hire candidates who perform well in those areas of weakness, and to develop and train employees to fill the gaps.
2. Tolerating competent mistakes
Some companies strive for perfection and error-free work, creating an environment where employees are afraid to improve the status quo because they don’t want to fail and be blamed. But another thing that humble organizational cultures have in common is the norm of tolerating competent mistakes: mistakes that result from novel ideas and not from flawed execution. Embracing these kinds of mistakes can help ensure that effective learning takes place.
Accenture, a global management consulting company, frequently holds events for employees to discuss creative solutions to current technological problems. The solutions may not always work, but making strategically intelligent mistakes is an integral part of the innovation process.
Companies like Accenture that give their employees the freedom to fail allow them to be more creative. Your company can cultivate this norm by encouraging healthy risk taking. For example, you can host brainstorming sessions where outlandish thoughts are welcome, criticism is banned, and ideas remain anonymous—which allows for them to be evaluated on their merit alone and not on the reputation of their originator. Through this seemingly simple exercise, employees can begin to experience a feeling of freedom that carries over into their day-to-day work.
3. Transparency and honesty
Many employees feel that by keeping operations and ideas a secret, they can avoid another person or department “stealing” their idea. In contrast, humble organizational cultures tend to be more transparent and honest. Individuals are frank and open about their ideas as well as their limitations.
During a client project, Accenture’s employees misread some information, which increased the budget and time required. When the mistake was discovered, Accenture executives admitted fault for the delays and additional costs as they fixed the issues. Being honest can help a company earn the continued trust of its clients and increase future business, as well.
When firms are transparent like Accenture, employees are encouraged to collaborate without fear of their ideas being taken, repackaged, and passed off as someone else’s. Your firm can cultivate this norm by making sure that top leaders are willing to give credit to others, admit weaknesses, accept blame, and apologize—as well as rewarding employees for these actions.
Some organizations have a bias again NIH, or “not invented here”: They tend to believe that internal ideas and operations are superior to external ones. This causes organizations to dismiss any ideas that are not familiar or similar to their own, regardless of their merit, in favor of internally developed solutions that further the status quo.
But a humble organizational culture means being open to new and outside ideas. For example, Colgate actively seeks new ideas for active ingredients and delivery systems for its products by crowdsourcing consumer suggestions through an Open Innovation Submission Portal.
To cultivate this norm, your firm needs to actively seek new ideas and feedback from employees and demonstrate that these ideas are valued. Some companies do this by creating idea incubators, which are internal programs that are insulated from corporate interference in order to allow people to engage in innovative thinking. Other ways to cultivate this norm include brainstorming sessions, suggestion boxes, or looking outside of your industry for inspiration from other companies. This can generate new and exciting opportunities that set your company apart from its competitors.
5. Employee development
Humble organizational cultures also prioritize employee development and continuous learning. Organizations that neglect this norm are usually more focused on short-term, day-to-day operations, fighting fires and doing more work with fewer people—which may eventually drive top talent away.
At DreamWorks Animation, employees are encouraged to participate in continuous learning through several avenues, such as formal training, mentoring, and outside education (for which they get reimbursed). In-house, DreamWorks Animation offers programs that help employees develop existing skills and learn new ones from coworkers and industry experts.
To cultivate this norm, your firm needs to have a strong focus on employee training and achievement. This doesn’t mean that you must offer costly tuition reimbursement programs; you could start with more informal, simple options such as “brownbags,” in which fellow employees or vendors share their knowledge over lunch. Your company can also encourage employees to adopt more difficult goals during their performance evaluations and give them the support and resources to achieve those goals. In this environment, employees are pushed to do their best and help your organization grow.
6. Employee recognition
Finally, humble organizational cultures regularly appreciate and celebrate the successes of their people. The goal is not to build up their pride or ego, but to acknowledge that every person plays a role in the success of the organization—that the firm could not be where it is without them.
One company that is well known for recognizing employee success is the online retailer Zappos. Zappos has a Family HERO Award that recognizes hard-working nominees with a special HERO cape, a HERO pin, a $150 Zappos gift card, and a parade thrown in their honor.
To cultivate this norm, your firm can implement programs to recognize stellar employees and stakeholders. You don’t have to start with elaborate parades or fancy gifts; something as simple as an email to the entire company recognizing a team’s achievements is a good start. Although celebrating tenure isn’t a bad thing, emphasizing achievements draws the connection between the personal actions of employees and the success of the company. With this kind of culture, employees are more likely to feel validated and confident in their abilities, boosting morale throughout the organization.
The culture of a company can enhance or hinder its success, influencing employee attraction and retention, productivity, innovation, and the company’s reputation. Culture is also an intangible asset that is costly for rivals to imitate. By promoting a humble organizational culture, firms can avoid those actions and behaviors that limit success through overconfidence, hubris, and unnecessary secrecy and instead cultivate habits that will serve as a foundation for empowerment, collaboration, and extraordinary success in the marketplace.