Research & Thought Leadership

The secret power of humility in the workplace

Naysan Firoozmand, Head of Global Executive Coaching at Hult EF

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A common misconception about confidence is that it is evidence of competence and know-how. This is typically due to the willingness of a confident person to express their views and ideas to others, make decisions amongst many differing viewpoints, and present a quality of personality sometimes associated with charisma. In some ways, this can over-value confidence as a leadership quality. 

On the other end of the spectrum, humility can be misunderstood and undervalued. Where humble behavior sometimes gets unfair criticism is where it is understood as stepping back, evading the tough decisions, lacking in influence, or even demonstrating deference to others. But when it presents in the right way, it can build consensus and allow others to shine, rather than presenting one dominant voice.  

Where confidence alone falls short

There is a dark side to confidence, which at its extreme can come across as arrogance. When this form of confidence gets out of hand, it can lead to toxic behaviors, to conversations dominated by one voice and others silenced, and to an overestimation of one’s knowledge or abilities. Culturally, we enjoy ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ success stories (never the failures, of course), whereas in reality, the Dunning-Kruger effect – where cognitive bias produces over-confidence in those with limited knowledge – instead suggests an inverse link between overconfidence and success. 

People with confidence can appear to lack humility, especially when it is associated with ideational fluency (the ability to generate ideas regardless of the quality). However, people who demonstrate high levels of humility can also be highly confident. They are open to the views of others, don’t push their ideas but rather build consensus, and are able to celebrate the successes of others even when they were integral to the process of achieving success. These are your confident yet humble leaders.  

The antidote to overconfidence can therefore be humility, as long as humility itself is not taken to extremes. An overly humble leader can become so self-effacing that they are never prepared to show their prowess to guide and teach others. At its best, humility can help to preserve a growth mindset, encouraging curiosity and lifelong learning with an understanding that mastery does not come easily. The challenge is striking a balance between decision-making confidence and self-aware humility. 

Noticing and cultivating ‘quiet confidence’ in ourselves and our teams

There is also a subtler form of confidence – inner conviction – something not always overtly noticeable. This form of confidence is defined more as a personal certainty that enables you to cut through the noise and get work done, despite being a ‘quiet’ contributor to the team. The humility counterbalance in this case is to preserve a readiness to be wrong despite that strong conviction; an understanding that we are all fallible as well.

Here are some recommendations for how leaders can harness the “light” sides of both confidence and humility in themselves and their teams: 

  • Reflect on how much share of voice you and your reports have in any interaction. 

  • Recognize inner confidence in team members – and where they tend to hold back. 

  • Consider 360-degree feedback – which includes peer appraisal – as a tool for gathering honest and open perspectives about you and your team, uncovering elements of confidence and humility that you could work on improving. 

  • Work on yourself to nurture inner conviction and belief in your decision-making, whilst being open to the views of others. 

Naysan Firoozmand BSc MSc CPsychol

Coach & Business Psychologist

Naysan is inspired and intrigued by human behavior and the influencing factors around why people do things the way they do them within their specific context. Naysan is a Chartered Business Psychologist and has, for the past 18 years, worked with clients around the world to design and deliver behavior change programs focused on leadership, management, and organizational development. He utilizes his knowledge and experience of different sectors, including finance, engineering, pharmaceuticals, energy, and technology, to highlight the similarities and differences between contexts that leaders find themselves in. ​

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Naysan Firoozmand BSc MSc CPsychol

Naysan is inspired and intrigued by human behavior and the influencing factors around why people do things the way they do them within their specific context. Naysan is a Chartered Business Psychologist and has, for the past 18 years, worked with clients around the world to design and deliver behavior change programs focused on leadership, management, and organizational development. He utilizes his knowledge and experience of different sectors, including finance, engineering, pharmaceuticals, energy, and technology, to highlight the similarities and differences between contexts that leaders find themselves in. ​

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