Should you hire for humility?

The very simple and short answer is yes. Why? Because humility makes everyone better. It makes the individual better, it makes people around the individual better, and ultimately it makes the entire team and organization better. 

In spite of the long and rich history in philosophy and theology, humility has for a long time been a highly underrated and overlooked topic within organizational research. Luckily, this has in more recent years changed and humility has become a popular topic within research and by practitioners an individual characteristic recognized as highly valuable for both employees and leaders. Two reasons why humility as a personality characteristic hasn’t received as much attention as other personality characteristics is because 1) it has not been a part of traditional personality assessments built on the five factor model and 2) humility has, by many, wrongfully been seen as a sign of weakness within the workplace.

However, things have changed within both these areas. First, the rise of the alternative personality model (the HEXACO model; Ashton & Lee, 2007), proposing a sixth factor emphasizing humility and other related traits, has made it more accessible for research to specifically look at humility as a personality trait in relation to workplace related outcomes. This line of research has identified a long list of positive workplace outcomes related to humility as well as negative outcomes related to the lack of humility. Second, the earlier misconception of humility as a sign of weakness, insecurity and a low opinion about oneself, which could not be more wrong, has today been replaced by a more general understanding of humility as a characteristic that is positive in its nature also in the workplace. So, if you aren’t already attending to humility in your current talent management processes, hopefully, after reading this post you will think differently. 

What is Humility

Simply put, humility can be defined in terms of having a grounded and egalitarian view of oneself and other people. Although quite a few definitions of humility exist, a common theme can be seen addressing four areas including 

  • willingness to obtain an accurate view of oneself and other people,
  • appreciation for others’ strengths and contributions, 
  • openness to learn from others and being teachable, 
  • and having a low self-focus. 

Humility should be seen
as a sign of strength

Clearly, nothing in this definition indicates insecurity or low self-worth, but arguably the complete opposite. Humility should be seen as a sign of strength in that these individuals are secure enough in themselves to admit limitations and failures, recognize others’ contributions and competence and lift others towards success. 

Things you can expect to see in a humble employee

  • Self-awareness: Humble individuals are willing to obtain an accurate self-awareness. This is of course highly valuable across situations as having an accurate self-awareness enables the individual to develop and grow. 
  • Self-acceptance: Humble individuals tend to be secure in themselves and have a strong level of self-acceptance. This enables them to recognize shortcomings and limitations in themselves as well as admit failures. 
  • Egalitarianism: Humble individuals view others as having equal intrinsic worth as themselves which result in a more fair treatment of others. 
  • Other focus: Humble individuals tend to focus more on other people and appreciate their competence, making them more likely to genuinely enjoy seeing others succeed. 
  • Prosocial behaviors: Humble individuals are more likely to provide help to others and they show more sharing behaviors.

Things you should NOT expect to see in a humble employee (but do expect to see these behaviors in individuals scoring low on humility)

  • Taking credit: Humble individuals do not take credit for others’ work and might even be hesitant to take credit for their own work, preferring to recognize everyone who made contributions.  
  • Bragging or self-promoting: Humble individuals, being modest, able to put their own accomplishments into perspective, and commonly disliking talking about their own achievements, are not very likely to over-emphasize or exaggerate things which are common to bragging and self-promotion. 
  • Superiority and inferiority: Humility being defined by the sense of equal worth of people is what makes it unlikely for a humble person to create feelings of superiority or inferiority among others, making humility a highly desirable trait in for example leadership and the lack thereof a highly undesirable trait. 
  • Entitlement: Humble individuals are aware of their own limitations and are able to put their own accomplishments in perspective and therefore are less likely to view themselves as superior and entitled to more than others 
  • Greed: Humble individuals value fairness since they think that others are of equal worth. It is therefore very unlikely that you will see a humble individual trying to receive more than others and demand unrealistic rewards or seeking status and other aspects signaling more worth than others. 
  • Exploitativeness: Humble individuals have no interest in using other people for their own means, but rather enjoy seeing other people succeed. This does not mean humble people don’t care about their own success, but only that they do not take advantage of others to reach their own goals.

Humility for organizational success

Humility has been found to improve organizational performance in many areas. To list them all deserves a future post of its own, so let’s just look at a few examples demonstrating the importance of humility in leadership. Humble leaders foster more collective humility in their teams, which results in more of a growth climate within the team and ultimately a higher team performance. Teams with a humble leader feel more psychologically safe, which in turn relates to higher employee engagement. Research also shows that having leaders that are humble builds the important team strength Psychological Capital (PsyCap, defined as psychological capacities including self-efficacy, hope, optimism and resilience; Luthans & Youssef, 2007), which in turn enables the team to allocate tasks more effectively to improve overall team performance. Lastly, even at the highest level of leadership the positive effect of humility is noticed. Organizations with a humble CEO perform better financially because their top management team (TMT) tends to collaborate and integrate better and by ensuring more equal pay among the members of their TMT. Humble CEO’s are also more likely to demonstrate empowering leadership and organizations with a humble CEO have a more empowering organizational climate. 

If you aren’t already assessing humility in your recruiting and promotion processes and actively working on integrating humility as part of your organizational philosophy, hopefully this has given you some insight to why humility is an important personality characteristic to attend to and why humble behaviors should be encouraged within the organization. 

Stay tuned for more to come on this topic or have a virtual coffee with me. I’d love to chat about how humility is regarded where you work. Don’t hesitate to reach out!

Dive Deeper

Humility and organizational success

Owens, B. P., & Hekman, D. R. (2013). Humility in teams: Collective humility and its impact on team growth climate and performance. In Academy of Management Proceedings (Vol. 2013, No. 1, p. 14272). Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510: Academy of Management.

Walters, K. N., & Diab, D. L. (2016). Humble leadership: Implications for psychological safety and follower engagement. Journal of Leadership Studies, 10(2), 7-18. 

Rego, A., Owens, B., Yam, K. C., Bluhm, D., Cunha, M. P. E., Silard, A., … & Liu, W. (2019). Leader humility and team performance: Exploring the mediating mechanisms of team PsyCap and task allocation effectiveness. Journal of Management, 45(3), 1009-1033.

Ou, A. Y., Waldman, D. A., & Peterson, S. J. (2018). Do humble CEOs matter? An examination of CEO humility and firm outcomes. Journal of Management, 44(3), 1147-1173.

Ou, A. Y., Tsui, A. S., Kinicki, A. J., Waldman, D. A., Xiao, Z., & Song, L. J. (2014). Humble chief executive officers’ connections to top management team integration and middle managers’ responses. Administrative Science Quarterly, 59(1), 34-72.

In text citations

Ashton, M. C., & Lee, K. (2007). Empirical, theoretical, and practical advantages of the HEXACO model of personality structure. Personality and social psychology review, 11(2), 150-166.

Luthans, F., & Youssef, C. M. (2007). Emerging positive organizational behavior. Journal of management, 33(3), 321-349.