Fostering a Culture of Humility: 3 Practical Steps for Leaders

Cultivating humility can help us through turbulent times — here’s how

By Stefan Gross-Selbeck, Global Managing Partner, BCG Digital Ventures

Some of the leaders I have admired most throughout my career have a few traits in common: They were always eager to learn, and to challenge the status quo and themselves; they were open to feedback and the ideas of others; and they were driven by a purpose — by an idea bigger than themselves. In other words, they displayed humility. I have always felt that being humble is an important characteristic of any leader.

So I was excited when I recently came across some academic research that actually provides some hard evidence and data on the topic, and which confirms my intuition: Humility is a better indicator of academic success than IQ; humbler people are more likely to demonstrate curiosity, engage in learning, be goal-oriented, and challenge their own assumptions; and companies run by CEOs who express humility have been shown to have management teams with higher degrees of collaboration and communication — also achieving greater profits.

I believe that the value of humility has grown even more meaningful in the context of recent events. All of us now are engaged on a journey of recognizing and understanding the impacts of systemic racism and discrimination. For many of us, this involves acknowledging the limitations of our own lived experience, looking to others to gain new knowledge and understanding, addressing cognitive bias, and challenging our own assumptions.

Additionally, navigating global uncertainty in light of the COVID-19 pandemic requires us to accept that some things are beyond our control, embrace the unknown with confidence, and lean even more on our support networks and the advice of experts.

Cultivating humility takes work, and practical steps. Leaders should look to undertake this work for themselves, but also encourage their teams and companies to follow suit. Here are three steps to fostering humility.

  1. Ensure psychological safety
    Firstly, it’s vital to ensure psychological safety within teams. This means making sure every member feels empowered and encouraged to share their ideas and speak up, independent of hierarchy or discipline. Encouraging a culture of openness and safety allows the best ideas to come to the surface and creates space in which experiment, learn, and grow.
  2. Prioritize feedback and growth
    Following on from this, a culture of humility should be supported by a strong emphasis on feedback and growth. By encouraging frequent and open feedback, we can train ourselves to take an honest and transparent look at how we’re doing in any given moment, and take constructive criticism as an opportunity to do better. Companies that have structured growth and feedback cycles, supported by a culture where feedback is encouraged and appreciated, will see positive results in moving towards a culture where humility is embraced.
  3. Adopt mindfulness
    Finally, another mechanism that can help us cultivate humility in our everyday behaviour is mindfulness. We can leverage mindfulness techniques to identify behaviors, patterns, or ways of thinking that run counter to expressing our humility. Another welcome effect of using mindfulness is its effectiveness in helping us deal with stress, anxiety and other mental health issues in what has been a tough period for all of us.

Particularly challenging times like those we are living through now provide particular opportunities for development and growth — for both companies and individuals. What this research demonstrates is that humility should be a focus as we work through these turbulent times. Leaders — in fact, all of us — should work to build humility. We’ll start to see positive results for our companies, for our people, and for ourselves.

Want to find out more? Start the conversation with BCGDV.

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BCG Digital Ventures - Part of BCG X

BCG Digital Ventures - Part of BCG X

BCG Digital Ventures, part of BCG X, builds and scales innovative businesses with the world’s most influential companies.