Humility in Management

Abstract

Although virtues have gained a firm presence in the theory and practice of corporate management, humility is not ranked as one the chief virtues in the business world. In spite of this, it is an important virtue, contributing to the manager’s moral and professional quality and the development of the company’s human team. This paper explains the basic traits of humility in general and how they manifest in the manager’s life and profession, and shows, within the ethics of virtues, that it is not just a personal desideratum but a fundamental quality of a good manager and good management.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Quoted by Burgess (1984, p. 47).

  2. 2.

    Humility and its related virtues, such as modesty, have been the subject of many studies (Sedikides et al. 2007; Tangney 2009) approached from religious (Spiegel 2003; von Hildebrand 1997), philosophical (Driver 1989; Exline and Geyer 2004; Grenberg 2005; Hare 1996; Owens et al. 2011) or psychological rationales (Exline et al. 2004; Tangney 2000, 2005). However, there are not many academic publications about humility in business management; one exception is Llano (2004).

  3. 3.

    For some modern definitions, see Davis et al. (2010), Kupfer (2003), Nielsen et al. (2010), Richards (1988), Snow (1995), and Tangney (2000).

  4. 4.

    Some senses of the word refer precisely to this: for example, when it is defined as lowliness of birth or as submission to another person.

  5. 5.

    Tangney (2005, p. 413) identifies six key elements of a definition of humility: an accurate assessment of one’s abilities and achievements, the acknowledgment of one’s mistakes, imperfections and limitations, openness to new ideas, contradictory information and advice, keeping one’s abilities and accomplishments in perspective, relative low self-focus and an appreciation of the value of all things, as well as the many different ways that people and things can contribute to our world.

  6. 6.

    And she strives to learn the reasons for her desires and drives, because it is vital for her personal improvement.

  7. 7.

    Too much self-esteem may have negative consequences, creating over-confidence in one’s own judgment or because of its tendency toward self-justification, which makes the person easier to influence.

  8. 8.

    Whether this is an act of humility or, on the contrary, an act of pride, will depend on the agent’s intention. If what he seeks is not self-satisfaction for the results achieved nor the recognition of others but to come closer to the ideal for the sake of the ideal or the virtue itself, his endeavor to improve in certain aspects of his life, including humility, will not be contrary to this virtue.

  9. 9.

    It may be hard to define the line that separates recognition of one’s limitations and mistakes from exaggerating them, particularly for an outside observer. In fact, it is practical wisdom or prudence that governs this line.

  10. 10.

    Moral philosophers consider humility as a potential part of the cardinal virtue of temperance, which moderates the natural instinct to put oneself in front of others, to manifest superiority, category or pre-eminence (Aquinas 1981, II–II, q. 161, a. 4; Pieper 1965). Humility is often discussed jointly with modesty (Exline et al. 2004; Peterson and Seligman 2004; Rowatt et al 2006), even though the two virtues are not interchangeable. Likewise, humility and practical wisdom combine because prudence is the virtue that rules the others.

  11. 11.

    “In modern western culture, positive self-appraisal is often equated with mental health and success. Counselors, self-help gurus, schools, and even governments have devoted extraordinary effort to maximize self-esteem and instill individual pride” (Brown et al. 2013, p. 57). This is grounded on a mistaken concept of humility. The attempt to create a positive outlook at whatever price does not confer a pondered, objective knowledge of reality, which is the rock on which an appropriate self-esteem is built. In any case, the relationship between the two qualities is ambiguous, insofar as self-esteem may correlate with narcissism or with a correct acceptance of self-reality (Exline and Geyer 2004).

  12. 12.

    There are also other virtues or attitudes that come near to humility, such as modesty, moderation and straightforwardness, and vices that oppose it, such as arrogance, haughtiness, conceit, narcissism, smugness, ostentation, envy or certain forms of vanity. We will not dwell here on the similarities and differences between these moral attitudes.

  13. 13.

    “Humility does not itself motivate salutary behavior the way justice and generosity provide particular goals for our pursuit. Neither does humility facilitate action. (…) In short, the satisfactions afforded by other virtues are not available through humility” (Kupfer 2003, pp. 265–266).

  14. 14.

    Some empirical studies show the negative effects of lack of humility on interpersonal relationships, conflicts and the lack of social acceptance (Paulus 1998; Vazire and Funder 2006), and the positive effects of humble behavior (Exline et al 2004; Peters et al 2011), as well as the role of humility in the disposition to help and cooperate (Exline and Geyer 2004; Hilbig and Zettler 2009; LaBouff et al. 2012) .

  15. 15.

    Owens et al. (2011) mention several empirical studies on the negative impact of self-enhancement, narcissism, arrogance and egocentrism on the operation of teams; cfr. also Owens et al. (2013).

  16. 16.

    For example, it is possible that a person’s humility can be appreciated better among friends than with people she does not know, or in the family setting more than in a work environment. It is also possible that young people assume apparently arrogant demeanors when they want to make an impression among people with more experience.

  17. 17.

    Owens (2009) show that the performance of students increased by three mechanisms, which also occur in firms: better awareness of strengths and weaknesses about the time and effort one would need to allocate to accomplish tasks, learning from strong performers and more receptivity to feedback leading to adaptability. Johnson et al (2011) found that self-reported honesty-humility predicted job performance among employees providing health care services.

  18. 18.

    Humility, like all virtues, is acquired in ordinary decisions, not in exceptional actions.

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Correspondence to Antonio Argandona.

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Argandona, A. Humility in Management. J Bus Ethics 132, 63–71 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-014-2311-8

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Keywords

  • Company
  • Firm
  • Humility
  • Leadership
  • Management
  • Virtues