We’re a month into the New Year, and most of us are focused on the resolutions we’ve chosen to pursue. While 2016 is still relatively fresh, you might want to consider adding one (probably unexpected) goal to perennial favorites like losing weight or getting your finances in order: becoming more humble. Why? Larger-than-life egos are fast becoming liabilities, not the signs of strength and leadership they once were. Indeed, in what may first appear to be a paradox, Professor Edward Hess says that ego’s mortal enemy—humility—is one of the traits most likely to guarantee success in the 21st century workplace.
In the tech tsunami of the next few decades, robots and smart machines are projected to take over more than half of U.S. jobs. The jobs that will still be ‘safe’ involve higher-order cognitive and emotional skills that technology can’t replicate, like critical thinking, innovation, creativity, and emotionally engaging with other humans. All of those skills have one thing in common: They are enabled by humility.
Skeptical? Ask yourself this: Have you ever met someone with a big ego who was really good at being open-minded? Really good at reflectively listening? At putting himself in another’s shoes? At playing well with others? At saying, “I don’t know,” “Your idea is better than mine,” or, “You’re right”? Didn’t think so.
Clearly, if you want to be an effective leader (or even a successful employee) in 2016 and beyond, you are going to have to rein in your ego and become more team-oriented. And make no mistake: It won’t be easy.
We’re talking about self-work that’s never finished. For one thing, ego-based thinking is our brain’s default position—we naturally seek to reinforce what we already think we know. Also, we have to overcome a lifetime of cultural and behavioral big-ego conditioning. But if we’re to stay competitive in the Smart Machine Age, it has to happen!
Here are seven suggestions to help you hone your humility this year:
First, know that you’ll have to work against your brain’s natural inclinations.
Quieting our egos actually goes against our very natures! Cognitively, we humans are wired to selectively process only information that is confirmatory—and to selectively filter out information that contradicts what we “know” to be “right.” In addition, we’re lazy, self-serving, and emotionally defensive thinkers who are driven to protect our egos.
Seek objective feedback about your ego.
You can’t troubleshoot your ego if you don’t have an accurate picture of what it looks like. Since this isn’t an area in which you can trust your own judgment, have the courage to get people who know you well at work and in your personal life to fill out a 360-degree review about you—one that focuses on your emotional intelligence and your behaviors concerning open-mindedness, listening, empathy, humility, etc.
Change your mental model of what “smart” looks like.
In the past, “smartness” has been determined by the size of one’s body of knowledge. Not knowing the “right” answer was—and often still is—a big blow to the ego. But today we already have instant access to all the knowledge we want, thanks to “companions” like Google and Siri. The “new smart” means knowing what you don’t know and knowing how to learn it, being able to ask the right questions, and being able to examine the answers critically.
As the legendary hedge fund investor Ray Dalio said, “We are all dumb shits.” We are all suboptimal thinkers. Only those of us who can graciously and humbly admit that we don’t know it all will succeed in this new world. So change how you keep score. Engage in collaboration, seek out feedback, and ask for help daily. That will push you toward developing the humility and empathy you’ll need to ‘win’ in the new game.
Learn to put yourself in others’ shoes.
Research says one way to become less self-absorbed and more open to the experiences of others is to actively work on being more empathetic and compassionate. Thinking of how others helped you and saying “thank you” on a daily basis is a positive way to begin the process. Reflecting on the people who add joy to your life helps too.
Remember, you don’t have to fully agree with someone’s opinion or actions to still treat them with compassion. Disagreeing with humility still leaves the lines of communication open and allows teamwork to happen in the future.
Quiet your mind to stay in the moment.
Fully engaging with your current experience (as opposed to ruminating on the past or worrying about the future) enables you to maintain a balanced, healthy perspective. Staying in and responding to the present moment is also a powerful safeguard against ego-driven misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
Personally, I have found that meditation makes me more aware of my physical reactions—breathing and heart rate. I now know that when my internal motor gets running really fast I tend to revert to a ‘me’ syndrome, and that I need to deliberately slow myself down so that I can exhibit more calmness and openness to others. I have come to understand that as a teammate and as a leader I don’t have to be right all the time or the center of attention all the time—but I do have to work with others to arrive at the best answer.
Stop letting fear drive your decisions.
We often play it safe because we don’t want to look dumb, be wrong, or fail spectacularly in front of our friends and colleagues. In other words, we’re afraid of making mistakes and bruising our egos. Being okay with being wrong is a necessary and important part of developing humility.
Grade yourself daily.
There’s a reason why to-do lists are so popular: They work! Create a checklist of reminders about the need to be humble, open-minded, empathetic, a good listener, or any other ego-mitigating quality you wish to work on. Make the list as detailed as possible. Review it before every meeting and grade yourself at the end of each meeting.
For example, if you want to work on being a better listener, your list might include the following tasks:
Do not interrupt others.
Really focus on understanding the other person.
Do not think about your response while the other person is still talking.
Do not automatically advocate your views in your first response.
Ask questions to make sure you understand the other person.
Ask if you can paraphrase what the other person said to make sure you heard them correctly.
Really try to understand the reasons the other person believes what they believe.
If you reflect and work on managing yourself every day, you will notice a difference in your humility-to-ego ratio. To start, I advise picking two behaviors you want to change. Seek the help of trusted others in creating your checklist and ask for their help in holding you accountable. Give them permission to call you out when they see you acting in opposition to your desired new behaviors.
Humility will be needed to maximize one’s effectiveness at thinking, listening, relating, and collaborating. You will need others to help you outthink a smart machine! Work on yourself starting now, so they’ll want to engage with you tomorrow. Honing your humility may turn out to be one of the most important New Year’s resolutions you’ll ever make.