Opinion | Like overconfidence, extreme humility too can be damaging for your professional growth
Every assessment of our strengths should be tempered by a dash of humility
An interview’s primary objective is to understand an interviewee’s ideas, skills and presence. Yet, most of us have attended interviews where an interviewer’s primary aim seems to be to impress the candidate, rather than striking a meaningful, insightful conversation.
Often, the power dynamic inherent in the situation gives rise to the common archetype of the overconfident, overbearing professional. It’s a widespread occurrence, as likely to be seen in people who are great experts, as those in positions of limited, meaningless power. This tribe is easy to spot: the purchase officer with a chip on her/his shoulder, the dismissive and curt super-speciality doctor, or the smug senior technologist, basking in her/his own supposed genius.
Confidence in yourself and a belief in your abilities, strengths and skills is an important starting goal. It’s a worthy aspiration to know your talents, and be sure of them. Professional growth encourages the urge to build on, project and assert one’s strengths. Your strengths make you distinctive. It’s obviously smart to draw on them. But to what extent? Do you know that your biggest strength can be your biggest weakness? Think about it. Being an idealist, for example, can lead you to become judgmental and condescending. Having a strong bias for action can lead you to take decisions that aren’t well thought through.
Every assessment of our strengths should be tempered by a dash of humility. Humility lies in being able to respect the fact that somebody else may have an idea that could be better than yours. Humility is about accepting that sometimes you can be wrong. It is about recognizing that sometimes others could be better than you in an area that isn’t necessarily their passion or their strength, or even the one they want to be defined by, like you might.
On the flipside, people often overdo humility. Instead of beating their own drum, they beat themselves up. Much like the overbearing confidence we discussed above, chronic humility too can be damaging for your career.
A young professional we know had good ideas and was hardworking, but would never speak up in team meetings. While he had a core strength—showing people respect and giving them space—his meeting routine turned into a dangerous pattern. He’d mostly agree with others, listening intently to everyone and generally being a silent bystander. He didn’t believe his ideas were important.
This created a perception that he was low on ideas, and not an active enabler. His extreme humility was destroying his professional presence. Consistent, sustained feedback helped him break through some of this. He had to be made aware that the organization would be missing out if he didn’t voice his insights.
It’s crucial that young professionals muster up the courage—and the skills—to focus some attention their way in group meetings. Of course, the team environment and a company’s culture might not always enable this, or make it convenient for young professionals to find their voice. But make your presence felt at every opportunity that might come your way. Engage. Listen actively, of course. But, speak up too.
This is often the first step towards confident humility: a combination that ensures you are self-assured enough to be engaged and participative, even as you are aware and cognizant of others’ strengths. Don’t let your desire to impress others make you overconfident; letting go and giving someone space will impress them enough. And, don’t let giving space to others get in the way of being more assertive; you have ways to go before you will stifle them!
Confidence with humility is a virtue. You don’t have to choose between being confident or being humble. A smart professional must learn to be both.
Art of Work focuses on extreme choices in the workplace and offers suggestions on how to find the doable middle ground. Pramath Raj Sinha has founded several higher education institutions and Shreyasi Singh is an author who now works in higher education.
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