In 1935, employees of the White Motor Company called a strike. Under intense pressure, new company president Robert Black faced a critical decision.
On one hand, he could do what most of us would do. He could dig his feet in. He could argue. He could escalate the situation and try to crush the striking union. He could complain about all the cigarette butts the strikers were leaving on the ground, the mess they were making of a company that was just trying to make some cars and turn a profit.
On the other hand, Robert Black wasn’t that sort of manager.
Instead, he noticed that striking workers were outdoors all day, often with nothing to do. Rather than go out and tell the striking employees to go home, he went out and bought baseball bats and gloves. Rather than tell them not to mess up company property, he invited them to play ball on vacant lots. Rather than air out his dirty laundry in the papers and claim the strike was the employees’ fault, Black took out an advertisement in the local Cleveland papers and praised the peaceful way the employees protested.
What happened? Did the employees walk all over him? Think him a coward because he didn’t project authority?
They responded to the friendliness with more friendliness. They even started taking out brooms to clean up after themselves.
Within a week, the strike had resolved.
Over the next few decades, Robert Black built the company up into a success. Says Wikipedia:
“Black retired in 1956, still beloved by employees.”
His secret sauce?
Why Humility Works
On the outside looking in, with our egos safely at bay, it seems easy to be a Robert Black. We all want to think we are kind, caring individuals who always see the other side of the debate.
Humility is trickier than most people imagine. It’s an elusive quality we all think we see in ourselves. But when an opportunity to actually be humble arrives and our egos feel threatened, the physics of human nature kicks in. We argue. We assert our correctness. We say we don’t want someone to walk all over us.
It’s a tough tightrope to walk. On one hand, humility is great—for the reasons you’re about to read. On the other, there’s no reason you should let someone walk all over you because you read in a blog post about how great humility is.
Even so, I’d argue that most people don’t really give this superpower known as humility an honest chance. Consider:
Humility Reinforces Other Peoples’ Sense of Importance
Here’s the cynical reason humility works. Human nature is such that we like to feel important and powerful. When you’re humble in the face of that desire, the only way other people can hold on to that self-importance is to treat you favorably.
What do we do when we see someone down? We pat them on the back.
In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie tells the story of when a policeman caught him walking a dog without a muzzle—despite Carnegie’s promise to do otherwise.
I was in for it. I knew it. So I didn’t wait until the policeman started talking. I beat him to it. I said: “Officer, you’ve caught me red-handed. I’m guilty. I have no alibis, no excuses. You warned me last week that if I brought the dog out here again without a muzzle you would fine me.”
“Well now,” the policeman responded in a soft tone. “I know it’s a temptation to let a little dog like that have a run out here when nobody is around.”
“Sure it’s temptation,” I replied, “but it is against the law.”
“Well, a little dog like that isn’t going to harm anybody,” the policeman remonstrated.
“No, but he may kill squirrels,” I said.
“Well now, I think you are taking this a bit too seriously,” he told me.” I’ll tell you what you do. You just let him run over the hill there where I can’t see him—and we’ll forget all about it.”
That policeman, being human, wanted a feeling of importance; so when I began to condemn myself, the only way he could nourish his self-esteem was to take the magnanimous attitude of showing mercy.
I know. That is a stone-cold cynical assessment of why it works.
But it’s also predictive. Other people will want to feel important no matter what you do. If you resist them and argue with them, they can only regain that importance by throwing more resistance back at you.
Employ humility, however, and the equation changes. You’re creating a vacuum. It’s essentially reverse psychology at that point: you’re telling them to strike the other cheek, and suddenly they no longer want to.
Humility is Unexpected
Arrogance plays to our baser instincts. We want respect. We want social status. We want people to recognize our-hard-work and what-we’ve-done-for-the-company and argh-why-won’t-people-give-me-the-respect-I-deserve-because-I-worked-really-really-hard-and-I-don’t-think-people-appreciate-me-and-if-they-could-just-buy-me-an-ice-cream-I-would-be-happy.
Other people want this, too.
Consequently, our experience with other people teaches us that people are sometimes self-exalters. They will interrupt our joke to tell their superior joke. They will show off their Lambo on social media. They will dig in when you argue with them.
Humility is the ultimate pattern-breaker. It stops people in their tracks. They now have to consider you in a new light. If they were wrong about how you would react, what else might they be wrong about?
Humility is the Basis for Empathy
As legend goes, Michelangelo was hard at work sculpting the David when the mayor of Florence stopped by to have a look. According to this mayor, the nose was too thick. Perhaps Michelangelo could whittle it down?
Michelangelo took a handful of dust, pretended to whittle it down—dust flying down from his hands—and presented the nose, having done no additional sculpting.
Much better, the mayor said.
Michelangelo knew the nose was just how he wanted it. Michelangelo was the second-most talented artist in history. The mayor was nobody. The mayor was wrong. Who among us would blame one of history’s most talented people for arguing the point? Of course Michelangelo was right about the nose.
But he didn’t argue the point.
He understood that the mayor simply wanted to make a contribution, to feel important. Michelangelo, thusly humble, gave him the feeling of contribution.
Rather than arguing, Michelangelo may have taken the time to consider why the mayor would come along and say something like that. And in that humility, he discovered what the mayor really needed.
How to Apply Humility in Business
As Dale Carnegie relates, Anna Mazzone was a marketing specialist for a food packer. Her first big assignment was to test-market a new product. When the test results came back, she saw that her data was useless. She’d made a mistake somewhere along the way. Suffice it to say, the company would have to repeat the entire process—and it was going to cost them.
When time came to report the results to her boss in a team meeting, Mazzone was terrified about how her boss would treat her. She delivered the results frankly, then sat down, bracing herself for the screaming and yelling that was undoubtedly headed her way.
But the boss broke the pattern.
He thanked me for my work and remarked that it was not unusual for a person to make an error on a new project and that he had confidence that the repeat survey would be accurate and meaningful to the company. He assured me, in front of all my colleagues, that he had faith in me and knew I had done my best, and that my lack of experience, and not my lack of ability, was the reason for the failure.
I left that meeting with my head held up in the air and with the determination that I would never let that boss of mine down again.
If the boss was solely focused on himself and the gratification of his own ego, he might imagine that her error would reflect poorly on him.
But he wasn’t. He clearly understood everyone would be better served if he reinforced his trust in his employee. Her response wasn’t to walk all over him. It was to show her appreciation for that trust by working harder than ever.
Tips to Put Humility Into Action
Sorry for using the term “lifehack.” I prefer those “lifehacks” that tell you how to cure the hiccups. But I can think of no better word for the role humility can play in your life.
But let’s get specific. “Be more humble” is vague; what can you actually do as a freelancer, a businessperson, a person who interacts with the world on the daily basis?
Remember the words “you’re right.” A long time ago, I had a client review a document I’d written for them. I’d taken into account the instructions they’d left, and in fact, had even stuck to them. But the client returned with a note: just keep those instructions in mind, they warned. I was a little offended; I’d taken the time to read what they sent me and the new document adhered to those instructions. But rather than bring it up, I just said, sure. My reasoning? I’d rather have a good relationship with a client than correct them about how detail-oriented I am. Ultimately, the project worked out great.
Give, give, give. Use your Twitter platform to share the cool things other people are doing. When a client asks you to do a little too much on a project, let them know you usually don’t offer that as a policy, but go ahead and do a lil’ extra. Buy someone a gift without expecting anything in return.
Find the good in what other people are doing. Robert Black might not have thought he was being humble. He might simply have been practicing a little positive thinking. If he was looking for the positives in the strike, he found them. He praised the strikers when they cleaned up after themselves. What a funny thing to come up with—yet it’s what Black found. In a situation full of tension and frustration, he took the time to see the little things that were good about the situation. They’re there, if you can remember to seek them out.
Finally, be grateful for what you do have. In Judaism, there is even a prayer of thanks for a healthy bowel movement. It sounds like a lot, until you consider the plight of people who have IBS, diarrhea, colostomy bags. Of course a normal trip to the bathroom is an occasion for gratitude. There is someone out there who would love to trade places with you.
There’s an innate humility in gratitude. It acknowledges that we are not special people deserving of great things by mere force of greatness, but that we’re all the same people, frail and mortal and flawed and tired and hungry.
Give the other person a little slack—and don’t be surprised if they do the same.