Team humility is often overlooked

Team humility is essential for the success of the team.  Fostering humility within a team creates very special energy which allows innovation and opportunities to occur.

You have been there before. The big presentation for the new project launch is just around the corner. Dreading the impending deadline, you recognize that you are going to have to pass along parts of the project and presentation to other members of your team to meet your deadline in a week and a half. You have hung out with Franklin a few times after work.  When you describe the situation to him, he volunteers to take on the part of the project you don’t want to do.  He gives assurances he will have it back to you and the rest of the team within the week.

As you lead the rest of the project, you prepare for the launch and presentation. You start to wrap everything up so that the team can do the final prep for the presentation. At the last minute, you find the portion of the project that Franklin took on is not done.  Even worse, has little resemblance to what you originally handed off.

Why does this happen? I contend this failure is due to a lack of team humility. Let me explain. All too often, humility is overlooked as a cornerstone value in organizations. We (falsely) assume that humility leads to low-producing, under-motivated wimps. That description couldn’t be further from the truth.

What Is Humility?

Humility is a virtue that is often lauded but just as often misunderstood. It is not about self-deprecation or a lack of self-esteem, but rather a realistic appraisal of one’s abilities and achievements about others. It involves recognizing that one is not inherently more important or valuable than others and acknowledging one’s limitations and the value of others’ contributions.

The Brain And Humility

When practising humility, the brain engages in a complex interplay of cognitive and emotional processes. There is a down-regulation of the ego, which involves the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive functions like decision-making, social behaviour, and personality expression. This down-regulation allows for greater openness to new information and feedback, as well as an increased capacity for empathy, as indicated by the activity in the mirror neuron system, which plays a role in understanding others’ actions and intentions.

Moreover, humility can activate the brain’s reward system. Acts of humility can release dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure system of the brain, which reinforces behaviours that are perceived as positive or beneficial. This suggests that humility can be intrinsically rewarding, and over time, can become a self-reinforcing habit.

What is team humility?

In the last decade and a half, humility has started to be recognized for its value. Whether it was the location of humility in the Level 5 leadership offered up by Jim Collins in his bestseller Good to Great. Or whether the work of positive psychologists like Julie Exline and June Tangney.  People are starting to wake up to the value of other-focused self-knowledge that is steeped in a willingness to learn and appreciate the values of others.

Based on my research in the field (examining middle school teachers and emergency medical technicians), I characterize team humility as the in-group functioning of team members toward one another, which includes a willingness to learn, accurate self-knowledge, proper location of self (about others) and care and concern for other group members.

The teams that people are part of may be tight- or loose-knit in their reliance upon one another, they may be as small as three or they may represent a larger group, but the characteristics are the same – these teams are aware. In an ever-changing world that is continually finding opportunities for the use of teams, the enactment of team humility leads to the possibility for real and substantive good to be engaged in organizations and communities.

Why humble teams?

When researchers examine qualities inherent in leadership and discuss the ingredients of a positive team, humility is often overlooked. Instead, they point to charisma, public speaking abilities, dynamism, vision, and a host of other characteristics. However, when teams enact, and organizations promote, the value of humility becomes very advantageous to their culture and performance. The understanding that humility includes a low self-focus, accurate portrayal of self and others, willingness to learn and appreciation of others can serve to aid organizations significantly.

If we look back at our initial narrative.  We would recognize better awareness by the leader of the individual’s strengths likely would have led to a different course.  Possibly not passing off this portion of the project to him. If we recognized that, rather than Franklin, Victoria was equipped with the specific strengths to carry out this portion of the program, it would have led to greater success.

Further, if Franklin had been more self-aware and cognizant of the abilities of his fellow team members, he would not have volunteered for a task that was not the proper fit for his abilities.

Good team members

Countless other narratives could be told about the failure of teams and organizations.  Many due to the hubris of leaders and team members. It would be easy to point to those who overinflate their importance and ability to carry out jobs. We could talk about the good team members lost to other organizations because of the failure of others to show care and concern. You could list the times in which your own or your team members’ lack of willingness to learn has led to missed opportunities for early adoption of new products and services.

Researchers have already begun pointing to long-term planning for example. Or enculturation of new organizational members, leadership development, group functioning, team learning etc. These are the primary places where humility impacts teams and organizations. When self- and other-awareness, willingness to learn and concern for others are present within a team, a real positive impact will be recognized in the culture and bottom line of that organization.

Cultivating Team Humility: A Strategic Approach

Embrace Humility From The Top Down

To foster humility within a team, it starts with leadership. Leaders must model humility by showing a willingness to learn and recognizing the unique expertise of team members. They should find the right balance in self-assessment, neither overestimating nor underestimating their importance. Leaders must also express genuine care for their team, checking in regularly and understanding their needs. Establishing a feedback loop is crucial for personal and team growth, highlighting areas of strength and improvement.

Embed Humility In Organizational Practices

For humility to take root, organizations must weave it into their fabric. This includes hiring, promotions, and salary increases. Publicly promoting team values and recognizing those who exemplify them reinforces their importance. Regularly reminding team members of these values encourages their adoption.

Strategies To Instill Team Humility

Building a humble team requires a nurturing environment where every member feels valued. Here’s how to achieve it:

Model Humility

Leaders should admit their mistakes, credit others, and learn from all levels of the organization. This sets a powerful example.

Encourage Team Reflection

Teams should assess their strengths and weaknesses together. This shared insight fosters unity and sets clear collective goals.

Foster Open Communication

A culture of constructive feedback allows team members to value diverse perspectives and skills.

Celebrate As A Team

Highlighting team achievements over individual ones emphasizes the importance of collective effort.

Share The Lead

Rotating leadership roles prevents power imbalances and encourages shared responsibility for team success.

By embedding these practices into daily routines, humility becomes part of the team’s DNA, leading to a more cooperative and effective unit.

The Impact Of Humility On Teams

Teams that practice humility contribute to a positive organizational climate. Companies must understand how humility works within teams. This understanding should inform recruitment, leadership development, and training strategies. Research shows that humble teams are more collaborative and resilient. For example, a study by Bradley Owens and David Hekman in the ‘Academy of Management Journal’ found that “leader humility is associated with more learning-oriented teams, more engaged employees, and lower voluntary employee turnover.”

In practice, companies like Google have embraced humility as a core value. Laszlo Bock, former SVP of People Operations at Google, emphasizes in his book ‘Work Rules!’ that humility is essential for learning. He quotes, “Without humility, you are unable to learn.”

In conclusion, team humility isn’t just a nice-to-have; it’s a strategic imperative. It’s about creating a culture where everyone grows together, leading to sustainable success.

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After 15 years of on-the ground work in nonprofits (churches, higher ed. Institutions, sports leagues, and membership associations), building capacity through communications and leadership development, Todd Greer, PhD. (Organizational Leadership, Regent University) now serves as the Executive Director of the SynerVision Leadership Foundation and as a lead developer on a teamwork project. His mission in life is to grow others through the engagement of their “sweet spot” where they can thrive in families, teams, organizations, and especially as people.