Sunday, March 30, 2014

Being intellectually humble is actually Being human

Glue that holds Tendulkars and Tatas of this world together :
 "Sachin Tendulkar is a humble human being", for those of you who have been associated with India in a reasonable capacity in the last 2 decades, this may almost sound like a cliché.
I had recently started reading a book called- "Pitch It- Inspirational Stories From The Cricket Dressing Room To The Corporate Boardroom" and this book's opening chapter is on humility and modesty and the corporate leader it features is JRD Tata. It narrates a story of Sachin Tendlukar touching the feet of his 87 years old fan in all humility saying that he felt lucky to meet her.
No, my post is not another one in the list to praise the retired batsman. In my eyes he still is among the #2 cricketer from India (...and #1 in my list is not Gavaskar or Kapil) but bigger point that I am trying to address here is largely these 2 questions-

1. Is humility the quality only for successful, rich people?
2. What would humility mean to people like us who are neither Tendulkars or Tatas of their respective fields?

What actually is humility?

  • When I Google the word "humility", the first phrase that shows up is- "the quality of having a modest or low view of one's importance."
  • Wikipedia defines "humility" as seen as the act or posture of lowering oneself in relation to others, or conversely, having a clear perspective, and therefore respect, for one's place in context.
  • And defines "humility" as "not proud or arrogant; modest: to be humble although successful.", "having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience"

These definitions are good, these are closer to my perspective of humility but I don’t agree with the part that says being humble is having low view of one’s importance. If one is humble at an expense of one’s self-esteem then that doesn’t paint a right picture or rather paints a picture of a loser. The core idea of being humble, as we have seen in the cases of Tendulkar and Tata is just not that.

Humility in today’s organizations context:
I was reading this book- "A Whole New Mind-Why Right-Brainers will Rule The Future" the other day and came across an interesting narration of how the human mind has evolved over the last century. It talked about some three phases that world has passed in the recent history. In my hope to recollect these phases right- mass-production era, Information era and conceptual era. In the mass-production era, the worker was the central character of the game and his job mainly was to do a set, precise job and comply with specifications. Then came information age, in which the computers starting gaining prominence and internet started connecting the world. The workers in this era, as against the previous era were more left-brained aligned meaning that they were required to think logical to make computers do the things they normally do. The conceptual age is probably more abstract in my understanding, which is more creative, that helped brings products more closer to user's human behavior by more using the right side of the brain.

My idea about specifying this illustration was characterize the evolution of the central characters in the organizations i.e. the worker in the first era to an engineer or knowledge worker. Knowledge worker's USP lies in the fact the she is now responsible to do more intellectually demanding jobs. Some prefer to call such people white-collared workers but I prefer calling them the intellectual personnel.

Intellectual personnel are driven by different degree of motivation. With them much in demand and survival no longer in question due to increase in wealth, they are driven a lot more by the intellectual potential of the work content i.e. the work that is different, closer to technology, something that is never done (by anyone) before, something that is not manual, something they can get machines to do.
Now when we talk about humility in today's corporate world we should remember this context. Humility in today's context would more resemble the phrase- "Intellectual humility".

Decoding Intellectual humility:
Recently a renowned journalist and author of the book- "The World is Flat" Thomas Friedman interviewed an executive at Google to find-out what it is like to get a job at Google. Google’s representative categorically told in the interview that they don’t generally prefer candidates from top colleges because, among other valid reasons, they don’t find most of these candidates to be intellectually humble. Dissecting some pieces from this article and adding some of my thinking and experience here-

A person is intellectually humble when-
1. She is willing to create the space for others to contribute.
2. She loves to possess knowledge but refrains from boasting about it.
3. She is willing to acknowledge that bad performance at workplace can happen because of them (or their lack of application of skills).
4. She won’t unnecessarily blame others when the bad performance happens at the team level.
5. She won’t pounce to take credit even for seemingly small achievements or rather bigger ones too.
6. Intellectual person may show sense of responsibility and ownership and will try to solve any problem. Showing humility here would mean that she will be willing to step back and embrace other's better ideas.
7. She is willing to change her opinion when someone else comes-up with a better fact or idea. And this changing of opinion is graceful (giving due credit to others) when it happens
8. She won’t just be quiet when the mistakes happen or when she needs to change her opinion. Staying quiet is often an escapist tendency in the organization but saying “Thank you” and “Sorry” when needed certainly are characteristics of being humble.
9. She knows despite having high position, she is unconcerned i.e. she doesn’t let the position speak or influence her words.
10. She may be ambitious and having higher position but during a conversation speak to the level of other person.
11. She doesn't use her position for undue advantages.

Intellectual humility simply means that you don’t know everything, and that you can be probably wrong. And as often as you are right, others have as much opportunity to be right.

What more could I say?
The key intention in the workplaces dominated by knowledge professionals should not be to show "how much I know vs others?" but the real battle is to channelize what everyone knows towards a common objective. To achieve this leader can really show the path, but it’s up to the intellectual personnel to embrace humility. Intellectual humility as a subject is quite personal or rather a choice everyone makes and that makes it hard to coach to others.

Another point is that lack of humility may not hampers one's growth always. We have a scores of top-executives in the world who are brash but embracing humility surely enables smart growth, one that comes with respect.

So referring back to questions that I intended to answer in this post, humility is more a human trait than the one to be only shown by the successful people. Probably, rich, successful people gets lauded more than a common man for showing humility but a humble person will know that its just fine. After all, gaining positive press is not a key goal for a humble person but at the end of the day, simply being human is!

Before I close this article, I wanted to express that I intend to focus next few posts on work place behaviors and Intellectual humility was one of the first things I thought to tackle.

Be humble. Be great!

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