The Most Important Trait for Life

At the risk of sounding like a self-help sleazebag trying to sell you the answer to life (or Amazon business automation), I want to bring into focus a long-valued trait that has lost its perceived usefulness over time. You would think that a trait that makes you more capable, knowledgeable, connected and healthy would get a lot of airtime – until you realise that this trait is humility. Philosophy and religion has touted the importance of humility for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Now science is explaining why humility is the most important trait we can develop.

Why humility gets a bad rap

We all have a need to feel important. After all, we are the main character in the story of our life. We not only want to feel important to ourselves, but we want other people to acknowledge our importance too. This need to feel important flies in the face of our desire for humility.

Even though psychology research on humility has increased in the last 10 years, popular culture has not yet seen an increased interest in this area. There is strong evidence in the research that humility is a positive trait, but humility is seen in a negative light in general society, especially in western cultures. Interestingly, when Landrum interviewed people about the traits that caused them to like people they did not rate humility high on the list explicitly, but the traits that were rated highest were the ones most closely associated with humility (e.g. “can admit their mistakes” and “are smart, but understand they are not all knowing”). There seems to be a misunderstanding of the definition of humility due to unhelpful connotations people have with the word.

People tend to incorrectly associate humility with self-abasement, low self-worth and meekness.

Self-abasement

Many people think that humility means degrading themselves in front of others. Humility does involve presenting yourself in a modest way, but it is not self-abasement. In fact, self-abasement is a behaviour related to vulnerable narcissism, as Worthington and Allison explain in their book, Heroic Humility. The motivation behind self-abasement is to draw attention to yourself and generate sympathy so others can reinforce your self-esteem. Research has proved that both forms of narcissism (grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism) is inversely correlated to humility. Self-abasement is actually the opposite of humility, commonly known as false humility.

Self-esteem

The reservation I’ve heard most often regarding humility is that it diminishes self-esteem. The last few decades have seen a preoccupation with self-esteem in popular culture. We believe that our success depends on how highly we value ourselves. We focus on valuing ourselves more highly without understanding how we actually build self-esteem.

Especially people who have had difficulty building their self-esteem object to the status of humility as a virtue. However, humility is not thinking less of yourself (and thinking of yourself less is only partially true). In fact, Dwiwardani et al have shown that humility is correlated with implicit self-esteem (how we really value ourselves, as opposed to how we tell others we value ourselves). 

This result is consistent with the expectation amongst psychologists that a person needs a high self-esteem to be humble. When your self-esteem is low you are scared that other people will treat you as less valuable. You are too insecure to forego the opportunities to elevate your own importance in the eyes of others.

Humility is a possession of the self-assured.

Meekness

People associate humility with meekness, shyness and the inability to be assertive. There is a general fear in western culture that we’ll be overlooked for credit or promotion if we don’t make people aware of our achievements. This article in the Financial Review is a good example of this type of sentiment where people believe they deserve a promotion but are being overlooked because they are more humble than their peers.

Apart from the fact that feeling entitled to a promotion in itself questions the validity of this self-reported humility, this line of thinking is short sighted. If you want short-term recognition then maybe humility is not for you, but if you want to make a long term impact then you have to play the long game. The long game is staying humble.

Humility has been shown to build better relationships. Studies have found that career progression depends more on your relationship with your boss than your competence and self-promotion. By staying humble you can build a better relationship with your boss and they’ll be more likely to nominate you for promotion. Sharing credit with others also improves your relationships throughout the organisation so people are more likely to support you as you progress rather than try to bring you down through jealous politicking.

Building relationships takes time, but they pay off in the long run. If you take credit for everything and claim to be better than you really are, you might get promoted faster but you are less effective once you are promoted. Your relationships are not as strong which means you won’t get the support from your team or from other departments to get the outcomes you need to succeed. Not only will you be more likely to fail once promoted, you will blame everyone else for your lack of results and this can do irreparable damage to your reputation. Play the long game.

What is humility really?

Now that we know what humility is not we should clarify what humility actually is. Psychologists are still debating on how to fully define humility, but the definitions usually include a combination of the following:

  • An accurate assessment of one’s abilities and achievements
  • An ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations
  • Appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions
  • Teachability, or openness to new ideas and feedback
  • Presenting yourself modestly
  • Other-oriented

Worthington and Allison distil these definitions of humility into three parts that are equally necessary:

  • accurate self-appraisal: valuing your abilities and achievements accurately (not too high, not too low) which involves seeing yourself as limited and fallible with a teachable attitude.
  • modest self-presentation: not presenting yourself as better than you are. Not trying to overshadow other people with your self-appraised greatness.
  • other-oriented: humility elevates others instead of yourself. Being humble means being less self-focused because you are other-focused.

I agree with Mark Leary that at the core, humility is not seeing yourself as special. This definition is based on detaching our abilities and achievements from our worth. Humility is about how we perceive and present ourselves relative to others. If we perceive ourselves as less valuable than others we develop low self-esteem which gets in the way of humility. If we perceive ourselves as more valuable than others we become entitled and narcissistic, which is the opposite of humility. Yes, our level of ability and achievement will be different compared to others but does this make us more (or less) important? I believe that our value as humans are internal and intrinsic, not the result of our abilities, bank account or influence.  If our value is intrinsic it’s easy to perceive our worth accurately compared to others: equal.

I believe the core definition of humility consists of two parts that are referred to as relational humility and intellectual humility.

Relational  humility is seeing all people with equal, intrinsic value and seeing ourselves as only equally important. It is the counter-balance to our childish tendency to believe that we are the centre of the universe. 

Intellectual humility is seeing the universe and human experience as vast and recognising that we have a limited knowledge of it.

Humility is the cornerstone for other virtues and skills

The reason that I believe humility is the most important virtue is because it is a necessary condition for developing new skills and virtues.

Your ability to learn starts with your desire to learn. It starts with how you see the world and how you see yourself. You need to see the world as interesting and see yourself as incomplete. Learning starts with curiosity and humility.

Without humility we cannot recognise our current level of expertise, including our current limitations and gaps in our knowledge. If we think we are perfect then there is no need to improve. Humility allows us to see that we are not perfect and that we still have more to grow.

“Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.”

Confucius

When I was at school I seldom asked questions. It was not humility that kept me from asking, it was pride. I happily raised my hand when I knew the answers. I was so scared of appearing stupid that I refused to ask questions even when I had no idea what the teacher was talking about. It’s funny that I never realised that I did not think less of other students who asked questions, in fact I was relieved when they did because it cleared up my confusion.

We don’t just need humility to admit to ourselves that we don’t know something, we need humility even more to admit our ignorance in front of others.

The paradox is that we’re ashamed to be seen as ignorant, but by admitting our ignorance we become informed and have no reason to be ashamed anymore. Humility is needed to overcome this paradox and that’s why it plays a crucial role in learning.

We’ve all worked with people who think they know it all. Usually it’s the people with the least experience or skill, but they are so caught up trying to appear capable that they don’t listen to advice and often antagonise the people around them. They are the people we give up on helping. They are the people we enjoy to see fail.

When I started my first job as a graduate engineer in a processing plant I was talking to one of the operators. He told me with great satisfaction about a previous graduate who thought he knew better than the operators even though some operators had over twenty years experience. This graduate figured out a cost saving opportunity that required a new tank to be installed underground. When he shared the plan with an experienced operator, the operator told him it wouldn’t work. The operator did not have a degree and he could not articulate the shortcomings of the plan in a scientific way, but his experience told him the plan wouldn’t work. The graduate had confidence in his calculations and dismissed the operator. He proceeded with the plan. And now there’s a very expensive hole in the ground with no purpose. The plan failed miserably and the operator who was “too stupid” to understand the plan just stood back and let the graduate learn the hard way. Implied in this story was a message for me: “Don’t think you’re better than us because you have a piece of paper. If you are not teachable you won’t learn and we’ll enjoy watching you fail.” Noticing how my fellow graduate engineers’ effectiveness depended on their humility when dealing with operators, it was an early lesson to me about the importance of humility in learning and achieving results.

Humility improves relationships

“Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.”

Thomas Merton

We like people who are humble. They are authentic. They make us feel comfortable to be ourselves. They appreciate us, are happy for us when we succeed, do not judge us, admit when they are wrong and give us “psychological air” in conversations to express ourselves. Studies have confirmed that humility makes people more likeable.  Farrell et al. and Van Tongeren et al. found that humble people were rated more favourably by their partners and had greater relationship satisfaction.

Humility not only makes us more likeable, but it deepens long-standing relationships. People are able to resolve conflict effectively and develop deeper understanding of each other when at least one person in the relationship displays humility. Many studies have confirmed this positive relationship with humility and stronger social bonds (see Worthington and Allison).

Humility improves long standing relationships through its impact on gratitude, empathy, forgiveness and altruism. 

Humility helps us to appreciate the people in our lives and to recognise the contributions they make. This gratitude and appreciation fosters a positive environment where people are more likely to continue with behaviours that are appreciated.

Empathy allows us to see the world from someone else’s perspective. By being empathetic we allow people to be heard and understood, which is a fundamental human need. Empathy is essential for building relationships where we feel accepted and where we feel like we belong.

Disagreements and arguments are inevitable in long term relationships. Conflict can drive people apart when unresolved, but forgiveness allows people to reconcile and even deepen their relationships. Humility is predictor of forgiveness. In fact, if only one person in a relationship displays humility, the research predicts that conflicts will end with forgiveness instead of retaliation.

Humility is also correlated with altruism – putting other people’s needs ahead of your own. Altruism is costly, it is selfless and it is hard but it is also the basis of any loving relationship. When both people are looking out for each other the relationship creates better outcomes for each person than when each person is only looking out for themselves. Being selfless in relationships requires trust and reciprocation if the relationship is healthy. Really, altruism is the basis for love in a relationship. No wonder humble people have better relationships.

The relational benefits of humility extends even further. Toussaint and Webb suggest that humility impacts both mental and physical health. Since humility creates stronger social bonds, humble people have more support which buffers the effect of stress on health. Humility impacts forgiveness, gratitude and self-regulation which may have direct connections to health. The link between humility and physical health has not been investigated properly yet with only three studies that conclusively draw a connection between humility and self-reported health. Toussaint and Webb found five studies that showed a connection between humility and mental health. High humility was found to be negatively correlated with anxiety and depression.

Humility improves your communication

Recall the last conversation you had with someone who could not stop talking about themselves, their achievements and their beliefs. Whenever you told a personal anecdote the person always had a better story to share. When you went through something bad, they went through something worse. When you succeeded, their success was bigger and better. Did you enjoy that conversation? Did you feel like you were rushing to get a word in because the person could not stop talking about themselves? This is what it feels like to talk to someone who is not acting humbly.

In contrast, talking to someone who is humble feels like you have psychological air, space to express yourself freely and fully. Humility sees the value in the other person and their experience. It does not assume that your own experience means more. In addition, humility is associated with greater empathy. When you are treated with empathy in a conversation you feel heard and understood. It meets a deeply ingrained need for acceptance and belonging.

Humility sounds like a great quality for the other person to have! What do we get out of it when we’re the one acting with humility in the conversation? Humility allows you to listen deeply and openly. When the other person is talking, you aren’t using that time to think about what you want to say or what story you want to share next. Instead, you are actively listening because you have empathy for the person. You ask clarifying questions and give space for the person to express themselves. The speaker is better able to share their thoughts, feelings, experiences and ideas. How does this help you? It helps you in two ways: it gives you more information and it increases your influence.

When you are the one talking, you only know what is in your own head. When you are listening, you know what’s in your head and what’s in the other person’s head – you know twice as much as the person who is talking! Wouldn’t you prefer to have more information than less? What does it help you to tell other people what you know? Apart from stroking your own ego it does not benefit you at all. On the other hand, listening informs you, expands your thinking, allows you to make links between ideas that lead to better ideas. Listening helps you more than speaking.

What about influencing others? I need to talk to do that, right? Yes and no. When two people are talking at each other without listening, how much influencing is going on? Influencing someone by speaking is only effective when the other person is listening. When you actively listen to someone they are more likely to reciprocate by listening to you. Humility means being open to new ideas and perspectives. Being open to ideas makes you more likely to be influenced by them, but your own ideas carry more weight when the other person recognises that you are open to their ideas. In this way, judging ideas on their merits instead of holding onto your own ideas increases your influence.

“It’s a paradox, because in order to have influence, you have to be influenced.”

Stephen Covey

Humility makes leaders better – but there’s a catch!

Leadership is influence towards a common goal. Soft influencing skills are more effective than hard skills for long term relationships. If your boss gives you an assignment and explains to you why it is important to the mission of the team or the organisation you will definitely find the assignment more engaging than if your boss simply said “do it because I told you to”. Using positional power and hard influencing tactics are effective in the short term but if done consistently it leads to disengaged teams.

Softer influence tactics rely on building good relationships and communicating effectively and openly. We’ve already seen that humility helps relationships and communication. It should be no surprise to discover that humility improves leadership. It’s widely believed in organisational science that leader humility results in a variety of positive work outcomes. Teams work harder and report a higher job satisfaction when they work for a humble leader. If you are interested in getting the best out of your team then humility is an important trait to embrace.

“A great man is always willing to be little.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

In his insightful book, Good to Great, Jim Collins discovered that one of the factors that separated good companies from great companies is what Jim Collins calls “Level 5 leaders“.  Collins defines Level 5 leaders as displaying a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.

All the good-to-great companies had Level 5 leadership at the time of transition. This was an empirical finding in the data which disputes the conventional wisdom that large transformations are driven by big personalities. This finding reinforces the idea that you might be able to progress your career in the short term through self-promotion but if you want long term success as a leader then it’s better to embrace humility. Humility allows these leaders to put the mission of the organisation ahead of their personal agendas. This leads to greater success in achieving the mission which results in recognition and promotion.

The less you focus on yourself the more you do things that bring you recognition from others.

There is a catch though. Qin and Chen et al found that leadership humility can have unintended consequences. When managers acts humbly with their team this is generally a positive experience for the team members. Research in attribution theory has shown that we tend to attribute positive experiences to our own abilities. When a leader acts humbly, team members can incorrectly attribute the leader’s behaviour to themselves. They might think “my leader treats me humbly because I am great at my job and I deserve to be treated with deference”.  This self-serving attribution can lead to entitlement (“I deserve a raise or a promotion because I am great at my job”).

Entitlement can lead to deviant behaviour at work. When people do not get the recognition or rewards they feel entitled to they feel owed and take it out against their organisation and team mates. They are more likely to drag out work to get payed overtime or to embarrass team mates who they feel are not pulling their weight – behaviour that would clearly cause friction at work.

Qin and Chen et al have demonstrated that this link between leader humility and workplace deviant behaviour exists if subordinates attribute the leader’s humility in a self-serving way. The key take-away here is that leader humility has widely accepted benefits, but effort needs to be made to make sure members in the team do not feel like they are treated as special. Humble behaviours should be applied consistently across the team and it should be made clear that you treat everyone with the same humility.

Be consistent in how you treat people.

How can I become more humble?

Gratitude

When people are asked to write a grateful letter they will act with more humility afterward.  Being grateful for someone’s help reminds us that our success was not all due to our own efforts.  Interestingly, increased humility also makes us more grateful. Seeing our success in context allows us to recognise when people have helped us and this makes us more grateful. Since practicing gratitude is a concrete action, it is something that can be done regularly to kick-off the virtuous cycle between gratitude and humility.

Read widely and travel

Exposing yourself to different ideas, people and cultures is a good way to nurture humility. Deffler, Leary, and Hoyle (2016) found that higher intellectual humility was associated with prior exposure to a belief, even if that belief was incongruent with a person’s own beliefs.

Staying in a bubble of the same people, influences and ideas causes you to ingrain your beliefs more deeply and makes you less tolerant to opposing views. Read books you wouldn’t usually read. Listen to news channels and media that might challenge your beliefs. Travel to other suburbs, cities or countries to meet people that do not share your culture, religion, financial status or beliefs. Meet people in these places and learn how they see the world. Being surrounded by people who all think and act differently to you makes you realise that there are other beliefs out there that also make sense of the world. 

Exposing yourself to a variety of ideas makes you open to possibilities and that your way of seeing the world may not be the only way.

Try something new

Try martial arts, painting, writing or even knitting: anything that you have not done before which requires some level of skill. Nothing is more humbling than being a beginner. When you only stick to the things you’re good at you start to assume that you are good at everything. Forcing yourself to do things where you are a beginner breaks that assumption. You realise how much you don’t know and how much room you have to improve.

You also notice that you get better with practice. Eventually your skill exceeds others who are starting out, but that does not fill you with pride. In fact, it makes you more humble. You remember that not long ago you were in their shoes and you are only better now because you’ve had more practice.  What you learn by trying something new seeps over into other areas of your life where you already have some ability.

It reminds you that your level of skill is dependent on how much you’ve honed the craft, it does not make you better as a person.

Reframe how you value people (including yourself)

What is your core belief about people? Do you see people as tools or resources to use for your own ends? Do you think most people are irrational, incompetent or less than intelligent? Do you see others as better than you and you are trying to prove yourself to them? Evaluating our core belief about others can help us to identify when we need to reframe our thinking so we see ourselves accurately compared to others.

A useful mind frame that lends itself to humility is to see all humans as inherently valuable. That means seeing people (and yourself) as unconditionally valuable. This recognises that skill, ability and success are a product of deliberate practice and hard work which can be applied to anything we choose. Sure, some people may have some genetic, economic or environmental advantages, but in the end skill is acquired through practice. It’s not an inherited trait and therefore you are not special.

Just because you’ve practiced and worked hard on a skill does not make you more valuable as a person.

Your value is not dependent on things as fickle as wealth, fame or power. This core belief allows you to see yourself more accurately and treat people with more humility because you value them no less (and no more) than you value yourself.

Be mindful of deeply held beliefs of entitlement

What do you feel you deserve? A promotion? A raise? A more understanding partner? More opportunities? These beliefs of entitlement can be a red flag that we may lack humility in these areas. Next time you realise in conversation with someone (or with yourself) that you hold a belief of entitlement, take the time to question yourself about why you think you deserve more or better. The irony is that acting with more humility in that area will make you more likely to get the result you desire.

Writing therapy

Wright and Nadelhoffer et al did an interesting study that found that humility is related to writing styles. Humble people used more inclusive language (“we”, “our”, “us”) and used the word “and” more frequently. Non-humble styles used more exclusive language (“they”, “them”, “people”) and used “or” more frequently. Wright and Nadelhoffer et al  go on to suggest that writing therapy tools could potentially help to induce humility. Their hypothesis is that by training people to use more inclusive language in their writing style, it might induce humility in the writer.

Conclusion

In a self-focused culture of selfies, social media highlight reels and self-esteem driven entitlement, humility is seen as a weakness. This perception could not be further from the truth.  Humility is the mother of all virtues and skills. Humility shines a light on our biases to open us up to new perspectives. Humility builds authentic connections with people that improve our quality of life. Humility is the most important trait for life.

Further reading

Carmody, P., & Gordon, K. (2011). Offender variables: Unique predictors of benevolence, avoidance, and revenge?. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 1012-1017

Collins, J. (2001), Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t

Collins, J., Level 5 Leadership, https://www.jimcollins.com/concepts/level-five-leadership.html

Deffler, S. A., Leary, M. R., & Hoyle, R. H. (2016). Knowing what you know: Intellectual humility and judgments of recognition memory. Personality and Individual Differences, 96, 255-259.

Dunlop, P. D., Lee, K., Ashton, M. C., Butcher, S. B., & Dykstra, A. (2015). Please accept my sincere and humble apologies: The HEXACO model of personality and the proclivity to apologize. Personality and Individual Differences, 79, 140-145

Dwiwardani, C., Hill, P.C., Edwards, K.J., Williams, J.K. & Bollinger, R.A. (2009), Humility, a Possession of the Self-Assured: An Exploratory Study, American Psychological Association 2009 Convention Presentation

Farrell, J. E., Hook, J. N., Ramos, M., Davis, D. E., Van Tongeren, D. R., & Ruiz, J. M. (2015). Humility and relationship outcomes in couples: The mediating role of commitment. Couple & Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 4, 14-26

Judge, T.A. & Bretz, R.D. (1994), Political Influence Behavior and Career Success, Journal of Management, Vol 20, Issue 1

Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J. (2017). Intellectual humility and prosocial values: Direct and mediated effects. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12, 13-28

Kruse, E., Chancellor, J., Ruberton, P. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). An upward spiral between gratitude and humility. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5, 805-814.

Landrum, E.R. (2011), Measuring Dispositional Humilty: A First Approximation, Psychological Reports, 2011, 108, 1, 217-228.

Qin, X., Chen, C., Yam, K.C., Huang, M. & Ju, D. (2020). The Double-Edged Sword of Leader Humility: Investigating When and Why Leader Humility Promotes Versus Inhibits Subordinate Deviance. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 105, No. 7, 693–712

Sandage, S. J., Jankowski, P. J., Bissonette, C. D., & Paine, D. R. (2017). Vulnerable narcissism, forgiveness, humility, and depression: Mediator effects for differen tiation of self. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 34, 300-310.

Toussaint, L. L., & Webb, J. R. (2017). The humble mind and body: A theoretical model and review of evidence linking humility to health and well-being. In E. L. Worthington Jr., D. E. Davis, & J. N. Hook (Eds.), Handbook of humility: Theory, research, and applications (pp. 178-191). New York, NY: Routledge.2017-14732-012

Van Tongeren, D. R., Davis, D. E., & Hook, J. N. (2014). Social benefits of humility: Initiating and maintaining romantic relationships. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 9, 313-321.

Worthington, E.L. & Allison, S.T. (2018), Heroic Humility: What the Science of Humility Can Say to People Raised on Self-Focus

Wright, J. C., Nadelhoffer, T., Perini, T., Langville, A., Echols, M., & Venezia, K. (2017). The psychological significance of humility. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12, 3-12

About the author

Divan Gradwell is co-host and producer of the Candour Communication Podcast where we discuss interpersonal communication and all the human stuff that gets in the way.

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