Sunday, March 8, 2009

Humility and Tentativeness

There are a couple of traits that seem to promote harmony and soften opposition almost instantly, and they also require a lot of practice. I am speaking of Humility and Tentativeness.

Humility is the key quality attributed to an unpretentious and modest person, someone who does not think that he or she is better or more important than others. There is a great strength in humility; that’s how it is distinguished from meekness. Humility is a behavior that is universally understood to be correlated to curiosity, empathy, openness, and respect. When your counterpart recognizes your humility, they feel less reason to be defensive. This reduces the odds of a bad reaction to what you have to say because they know they can count on you to hear any counterpoint they may want to present. The opposite of humility is arrogance, and arrogance will tend to set your counterpart on edge and make them defensive.

Tentativeness means presenting your opinions in such a way as to make clear that they are not final or fully worked out. This promotes safety as well, because it is clear that there is an opportunity to “build” a collaborative idea with you. This is a strong signal that you are authentic in your desire to collaborate.

These positions signal a lot. Mostly, they indicate that you are probably going to approach the collaboration with some integrity. They signal strongly that you WANT further input and that it will be welcomed. They also indicate that your perspective is not fully worked out and, since you are building the idea together, your counterpart needn’t have a fully formulated idea either. Of course, if either of you have have a fully worked out solution, we'll use our same trusty critical discussion skills to vet their idea with them.

If you think of the flip side of this, you can see why anyone might be hesitant to bring an idea to a person that is arrogant or judgmental about their perspective on a given problem and is sure they have everything worked out. It is unlikely that you’ll be given due consideration and possibele that you’ll even be open to ridicule if your idea doesn’t match your counterpart’s perspective.

There are a few ways to signal your humility and tentativeness to your counterpart.

Bob is an experienced, respected member of the Project Management department and is considered very competent by his peers and by you. He has run into a snag in a contract. You are approached by co-worker. Compare these sentences:

“Any schoolboy would know how to handle Bob’s contract problem. There’s only one right answer.”
“I can’t believe Bob is having trouble with this Contract. The answer is so obvious!”
“I have the solution to the Contract issue that Bob couldn’t figure out”
“I have a great idea about the Contract issue that Bob was dealing with”
“I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the Contract issue that Bob mentioned”
“I’m not at all sure about what to do regarding Bob’s Contract issue. Do you have any suggestions?”
“I’d love to work with you on some ideas to address the Contract issue that Bob raised”
“I’ve been thinking about the problems that Bob had mentioned about his Contract. I have a few thoughts, nothing complete though, and would like to toss them around with you a bit.”
“I don’t think I could contribute to the solving the contract issue if Bob was having trouble”

Which of these signal arrogance? Which signal humility? Which signal meekness?

Think about how the conversation might go for each of the above if it was your counterpart’s opening.

For which of them would you be inclined to contribute ideas and for which you not? Which do you think would likely be collaborative and which not? Which do you think would be productive and which not?
If you were going to approach a collaborator, with the goal of collaboratively creating a suggestion for Bob regarding his contract snag, which would you say?

I am not suggesting that ANY of them are perfect. Which do you think support a collaborative environment in an authentic voice?

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1 comment:

Rod Buckham said...

Gregg: This is a great business description of humility. Often those of us who have a faith-based understanding of humility as a character quality (God on a cross--how's that for humility?) need to describe it non-religiously.

Recently during a personnel assessment I wanted to say arrogant, but it would have been easier to emphasize that the quality needed was humility, and then describe what that would look or sound like. Good comparison.