A client of mine who was in a senior leadership position at an international business once said to me that every day he went to work he felt that he needed to “put on a suit of armor.” The general consensus from employees at this company was you needed to be prepared to protect yourself from the “attacks” of colleagues on a daily basis. Conversely, a Fortune 500 corporation that I consult with only employs graduates from Ivy League schools. The basic assumption is, “Everyone here is smart — so don't be superior in your attitude toward others.” In fact, several presidents had short tenures because of their autocratic attitudes.
Both of these examples raise a critical issue that impacts all business owners and leaders: What type of culture are you fostering? Does the culture at your company promote humility or arrogance? A “humble” work environment is collaborative. There is a sense that mistakes are allowed as a part of the learning process. This type of culture promotes a positive buzz, creativity and effective teamwork. Leadership that endorses a culture of humility presupposes that the right people are “on the bus.” They have confidence in each member of their team's intellectual and technical capabilities. Therefore every project is not a test, but rather an opportunity for individuals to work together to create an amazing solution. Research supports that positive organizational cultures are linked to increased employee productivity, employee commitment, and an improved bottom line.
However, perhaps in your company there is a high level of tension, where every interaction is fraught with conflict. Do you as a leader tolerate members of your management team being haughty or pointing fingers in an attempt to assign blame if a project fails? While this type of Machiavellian approach may seem to promote a “survival of the fittest” and resiliency in your employees, it ultimately creates an environment of negativity and mistrust. And trust is an essential element of a successful, productive team. Certainly there are some personality types that would thrive in negotiating the politics of a culture of arrogance, but more likely this type of toxic environment leads to employee dissatisfaction and turnover.
Take a moment and evaluate your company or team culture. If it falls closer to the arrogant side of the scale, ask yourself if this was a conscious decision on your part and if this style is getting the results you desire. If so, then there is no need to make changes in your leadership behavior. But if you did not make a deliberate decision to create a culture of arrogance, then perhaps it is time to take some active steps to redefine the work environment. The following are some ways to shift your culture more toward one of humility.
Five essential behavioral steps to create a “humble culture”
• Acknowledge the power of your leadership role. As a leader you need to actively embrace the critical part you play in setting the tone for the entire company. Not getting involved or addressing the tenor of employee interactions is essentially making a “passive” decision to tolerate your current culture. As a strong leader you need to honestly assess not only what is occurring, but the impact of your behavior on contributing to the tone of the work environment.
• Identify the specific behaviors needed in a culture of humility. The critical aspects needed for any high functioning team are: respect, trust, communication, passion and commitment. Define each of these qualities clearly so they can translate into actionable behaviors.
• Communicate your cultural expectations both verbally and behaviorally to current and new employees. It is essential that you frequently express your expectations for employee behavior both in your attitude and actions.
• Hire individuals whose values are aligned with your company culture. It is important to assess those non-technical behaviors that will impact the successful hiring and training of a new employee to your culture of humility.
• Shape the desired behaviors by reinforcing positive behaviors and extinguishing negative behaviors. That translates into acknowledging behaviors that promote a humble culture and either ignoring or giving negative feedback to those employees engaging in divisive behavior.
Make no mistake about it. As a leader, the culture at your business is wholly dependent on your decisions and behavior. It is critical for you as a leader to take a proactive stance on the type of environment you want to foster in your business.
Being passive and simply tolerating unacceptable behavior is leading by default. This type of leadership results in poor employee morale and retention, which negatively impacts your bottom line. Ultimately it begs the question: Can you afford not to foster a culture of humility?
Denise P. Federer, Ph.D. is founder and principal of Federer Performance Management Group. She has 27 years of experience working with key executives, business leaders and Fortune 500 companies as a behavioral psychologist, consultant, coach and trainer. Contact her at: