Recently, a friend struggling with some colleagues asked me, “What are the common traits you see in those able to build and maintain strong professional relationships?” “Humility and curiosity,” was my response. Since that conversation, I’ve thought a lot about what these traits, specifically humility, look and feel like – personally and professionally.

On its face, humility may seem easy to understand and comprehend. As an action and a practice, it is much more complex and contrary to what U.S. culture encourages.

What does it mean to be humble? To practice humility? United States culture sends many messages influencing what we consider “strong,” “desirable” traits, “acceptable” or “respectable” responses or reactions.  In many cases, these messages undermine humility. Here are some examples from my life:

  • A previous boss told me apologies show weakness, so he will never apologize for anything he did.
  • An ex-boyfriend and I often found ourselves in conflict when it came to things that hurt my feelings or that I did not understand. He explained to me that in his professional field he learned to never admit he didn’t know something and to never admit mistakes. He was able to move ahead in his career by pretending to be the expert all the time and by creating doubt in others’ minds about what may or may not have happened.
  • I shared a video in a Crucial Conversations training that portrayed a colleague strongly reprimanding a manager for something the manager had done wrong. That manager responded by asking if they could all sit down and talk about what happened. When I asked the training participants what they thought, one person opined the manager showed weakness by not defending himself and putting the other person in her place.

These examples illustrate the common belief that vulnerability (e.g., admitting you might not know something, admitting you may not have handled something in the best manner, acknowledging mistakes, asking for assistance or help) equates to weakness and something to avoid if you want respect or professional respect.   

I will pose the same question here that I posed to the training participants: What does strength look like? Think of a time when someone around you showed immense strength. Here are a few examples that come to mind:

  • My mom attending a dinner honoring my brother who passed away, even though there were people in that room she did not feel supported her
  • A friend adopting children after a late term miscarriage
  • A co-worker choosing to continue working with two people in conflict even though they had no idea how to help – acknowledging that and remaining present to help them work through the challenges
  • A leader speaking to their team about difficult decisions needing to be made, being honest about not knowing the best way forward, and soliciting ideas

What do all of these examples have in common? They all demonstrate people choosing  humility and vulnerability despite their fear. Seeking partnership and support while building trust, fostering inspiration and ultimately, feeling more connected.

I challenge you to examine your deep-rooted beliefs of humility and ask yourself, how are they serving you?  If the answer is not well, think about what you can do to shift those beliefs. Each of us has a direct impact on environments and the people who inhabit them. What impact might practicing humility have on your ability to learn and grow as well as  build and maintain strong relationships?

To hear Simon Sinek, founder of Start with Why, speak to the strength and benefit of humility, check out his youtube channel or this recent video:

 

By Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds,
University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office