The paradoxical power of humility: how being humble is a strength

For too long, humility has been misunderstood. Despite traditionally being viewed as a weakness, psychologists now have a better understanding of the complex effects of humility. Far from being a weakness, being authentically humble has been found to offer many powerful benefits, including improved relationships at work, better team performance, and increased overall wellbeing. So how can you harness the power of humility?

The benefits of humility

Confusion around the definition of humility is common. Some may incorrectly assume that those who are humble have low self-esteem or a low opinion of themselves. This misinterpretation is not helped by the way we use the concept of humility in everyday language. For example, if you picture a “humble home”, you may imagine a house that is small or lacking in some way.

However, when it comes to character traits, humility doesn’t describe a deficit. In fact, those who are humble typically have healthy self-esteem, but without the need to boast about it. A person who is humble is likely to be more courteous, respectful, and in tune with the feelings of others. They are also unlikely to be prone to bragging or arrogance.

Scientists have found that being humble has numerous benefits. For instance, Dr Rob Nielsen and Dr Jennifer Marrone noted that in the workplace, “humble individuals acknowledge their limitations alongside their strengths, seek diverse feedback and appreciate contributions from others without experiencing significant ego threat”. 

This awareness can lead to better relationships with others. Dr Daryl Van Tongeren and colleagues found that practising humility makes it more likely that an individual will be “other-orientated rather than self-focused”.

By being humble, we are better able to celebrate the successes of others without feeling jealous or resentful of their progress. Once we are attuned to how others are feeling, and are able to respect their accomplishments, interpersonal relationships and networks become stronger. Forging such positive connections is of value in friendships, familial and romantic relationships, and for developing a good rapport with colleagues.

The power of humble leadership

According to Dr Jim Collins, old-fashioned board directors might believe that they need “an egocentric chief to lead the corporate change.” However, Collins argued that rather than superiority, humility is the most useful personality trait. He explains that effective leadership can only occur when decision makers tend to “give credit to others while assigning blame to themselves”. As part of his research, Collins also noted that humility is one of the top five most common characteristics in leadership roles.

Dr JianChun Yang and colleagues further investigated why humility among leaders is important. They found that leaders who express humility are likely to see improved growth, development, and performance among their team members. Humble leaders have also been found to create work environments that are more psychologically safe.

However, humility shouldn’t be used to fool people. A leader who appears to be humble only to serve management motives will be perceived as less trustworthy. Humility needs to be a genuine character trait, not an act.

A humble life is a happy life

It’s not only our personal and professional relationships that can benefit from humility. Researchers have found that those who are humble enjoy better physical and mental health, even when faced with stressful life events.

For example, Dr Neal Krause and his team demonstrated that humility can help buffer the impact of a stressful event, helping to protect overall happiness and satisfaction with life, while also protecting from depression and anxiety. Practising humility can therefore help to boost wellbeing.

Despite the benefits of humility across many facets of an individual’s life, humility remains largely unendorsed as a character trait. Experts in positive psychology have found it concerning that, despite their association with life satisfaction, humility and modesty are not more highly rated as character traits.

Dr John Harvey and Dr Brian Pauwels noted: “It is difficult to understand why so many people at this point in their lives would not endorse modesty and humility as essential to life satisfaction.” (they are referring to mid-life)

Humility is proven to be a powerful personality trait. It can boost work performance, improve the quality of our relationships, and even support mental wellbeing in the face of adversity. It’s therefore paradoxical that this personality trait is so woefully under-recognised.

Strategies to practice humility

It is clear from the research that humility can be hugely rewarding, not only for yourself, but for those in your personal and professional life as well. If you want to benefit from being more humble, the following strategies will help you strengthen this valuable personality trait. 

  • Listen more and speak less. Practising active listening allows you to spend more time trying to understand someone else’s point of view. In doing so, you show that you are present, interested, and engaged in the conversation. When it’s your turn to speak, ask relevant questions and remain focused on the other person. Avoid making the conversation all about you. This ensures that your friend or colleague feels appreciated. Learning to truly listen will allow everyone in the conversation to thrive.
  • Support others without bragging. Help people around you without bragging about it. If you’re truly helpful, people are likely to publicly thank you for your support, without the need for you to be the one highlighting all your effort. And, even if they don’t, helping someone else with a project is a good way to learn in and of itself — the recognition for your help is just the cherry on top.
  • Celebrate the success of others. While it’s important to celebrate all your wins, even the small ones, humble people also rejoice in the success of others. When someone else begins a new challenge, support them without referring to your own achievements. If a friend accomplishes a goal, show them how impressed you are. Don’t relate their achievements to your own. Instead, let them feel proud without comparison.

Being humble has commonly been viewed as a weakness, but modern research shows that practising humility can be a powerful tool for connecting with others both personally and professionally. While practising humility will help those around you to feel supported and valued, nurturing this trait can also boost your performance and protect you from low mood and anxiety. 

However, it’s important to remember that any work towards your personal growth must be authentic. In order to benefit from humility, your desire to develop this personality trait must be genuine. To begin further develop your humility, become more “other-orientated” by practising active listening, being supportive of the people in your life, and whole-heartedly celebrating the success of others without comparing it to your own.

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