I want to share with you one of the most powerful principles I learned as a leader. Like many truths, there is no black and white, no simple fix, but there are timeless principles that can guide you through the challenges we all face working together with others. The principle is this: Working together requires humility and honesty.
These two aspects, and the tension they create, allow us to truly function as a team rather than as a group of individuals or, even worse, a group or groups of individuals.
I know you’ve heard these words and would have no trouble defining them, but I’d ask that you put all that on hold for a moment because what I’ve found is that most culture problems in an organization can find their roots in a mistaken belief about one or both of these virtues.
Before I dive into what I mean by honesty and humility and how you can put them into practice, I’d like to give you an idea of what a team environment looks like without one or both of these virtues.
The absence of both humility and honesty
This is easy to spot, and it doesn’t take long for the best team members to leave.
Without humility, your people will spend more energy vying for recognition and resources than they will spend trying to build a great enterprise that will outlast them.
Without honesty, your people will spend more energy trying to read between the lines and pretend to be happy than they will spend trying to understand and overcome the internal and external problems the company is facing.
If you find yourself in an arrogant and dishonest culture, don’t hang around. If you are the leader and you created and boastful and corrupt culture. You have a lot of work to do.
But the truth is, you wouldn’t be reading this article if that was you.
However, I’d be willing to bet something in the next two sections will ring more true than you’d like.
Honesty without humility
This is tough love without the love. It is prevalent in hard-charging business environments. From the outside, it’s what we would expect to find in brash and abrasive cultures. You also see it a lot in sports culture. Many great coaches and even more great players (by name recognition at least) likely have an easier time with honesty than humility.
But here’s the problem. Honesty without humility destroys trust. Sure, I can trust what you say, but I cannot trust your intentions. I believe you are telling YOUR truth, but I don’t believe you are interested in finding THE truth.
The real shame here is that we can get by for quite a while without humility and may even benefit from a lack of humility in the short-run. It’s not until the project is over, the game is won or lost, or you retire that the sting of regret sets in. And often, it’s far too late to fix.
Humility without honesty
Humility without honesty seems nobler. We are careful not to be mean. We are quick to encourage (outwardly, at least). We don’t draw attention to ourselves publicly. But inside, we are rotting. Sure we don’t say it, but we still believe it, and I think this is even worse.
Let me repeat that. Humility without honesty is worse than honesty without humility.
Why? Because it’s not actually humility. It’s a facade we put up to look good and play nice with others, but it’s not true.
When you have a team that emphasizes humility but not honesty, you get a group of people who all outwardly agree but inwardly disagree. Everyone smiles and nods in meetings and then go back to doing things their own way. Politics thrive. Passive-aggression runs rampant.
The root issues are never dealt with, and personality differences are rarely overcome, all while the leader thinks everyone is great!
I see this most frequently in nonprofits, churches, and other cause-based organizations who tend to see conflict as a problem and try to avoid it at all costs.
Honesty and humility
This is where the magic happens! Every CEO’s primary goal should be to create a culture governed first and foremost by honesty AND humility.
Here are a few hallmarks of an honest and humble culture.
- Problems are identified quickly. The team is willing to look at and address hard things.
- Trust is high. It is much easier to trust when I know you are saying what you mean, and you have our combined interests in mind.
- Productive conflict is common. It is normal and necessary for people to disagree. Honesty and humility give us guardrails for engaging in healthy conflict.
- Accountability is strong and multidirectional. Everybody holds everybody accountable. When someone screws up, we call it what it is and move forward together.
- Creating and innovation flourish. It is far easier to create and innovate when you feel safe, and nothing does that better than humble honesty.
What do I mean by humility?
My favorite definition of humility is to think of oneself rightly, neither too high nor too low. Humility, by this definition, has many facets for a team.
First, it demands self-awareness. Humble team members know both their individual strengths and weaknesses. They recognize the dependence created by their weakness and accept that they need to rely on others. They also recognize that their strengths are to be used to serve and cover weaknesses in other team members. Their humble self-awareness prevents them from deriving value from elevating their strengths over others and ignoring their flaws. Instead, humility allows us to accept both our strengths and weaknesses and accept others’ strengths and weaknesses.
A second, related facet has to do with trust in the team. Humility allows us to disagree and commit, trusting in the collective strength and wisdom of the group. It leaves us open to learning, open to being challenged, open to admitting we’re wrong.
Third, humility allows us to celebrate team wins above our own and focus ourselves intently on the team’s success.
Fourth, it allows us to approach differences of style, opinion, motivation, and communication with first and foremost a desire to understand and to learn.
What do I mean by honesty?
My favorite definition of honesty is saying the last 10%. Let me explain!
How many times have you sat in a meeting and thought “BS” but simply smiled and nodded instead?
How many times has someone on your team done something, and you’ve said it’s great and then went in a changed it all yourself?
How many times have you known you needed to have a challenging conversation but ended up softening it so much the person couldn’t even tell something was wrong?
High levels of true honesty force humility, or the lack thereof, to the surface. When honesty is lacking, false humility and cowardice can flourish, masquerading as humility. Honesty forces us to face the personal and interpersonal issues head-on. It leaves little room to sweep “it” under the rug. Honesty also encourages self-awareness requiring us to be honest even with ourselves. Honesty also influences our dependability. When we say yes, it is a yes. When we say we will get the job done, we will get the job done. Honesty lets us know when we are wrong, and it allows us to hold others accountable when they are wrong.
True humility and true honesty keep each other in check. Humility without honesty makes you a doormat. Honesty without humility makes you a bulldozer. Humility and honesty give us the boldness to take real issues head-on while extending grace and compassion to our teammates.
Take a moment to consider the following questions. I’d encourage you to write out your thoughts and even go over them with your team.
- How would you rate yourself on the degree of honesty and humility you bring to your team every day?
- How would you rate your leaders on the degree of honesty and humility they bring to your team every day?
- How would you rate your company culture on its ability to promote and encourage honesty and humility from everyone in the company?
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