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The Importance of Humility to Diversity and Inclusion

Today, most organizations have diversity and inclusion plans and programs.  Yet, diversity remains a challenge for businesses, universities, and government agencies.  One possible explanation for the difference between what companies want and the outcomes they achieve is that their plans are missing vital elements.  This post will discuss the importance of humility to diversity and inclusion efforts.

Humility in the Workplace

In most movies and television shows, the “high-powered boss” is shown barking orders at her staff, giving long speeches, and taking credit for others’ work.  But in real life, bosses who exhibit humility excel. 

According to the Catalyst Research Center, employees thrive under “altruistic leadership.”   In these environments, employees feel they belong and feel that their unique contributions are valued.  The Catalyst researchers named four features of altruism: empowerment, accountability, courage, and humility.   (This has been termed the “EACH” approach to leadership.)

The study authors noted that after empowerment, humility was “the most significant” indicator of altruistic leadership.  However, it was also the one people were least likely to associate with effective leadership.  Because our culture generally doesn’t associate humility with leadership, humility presents challenges for some leaders and organizations in the beginning.  Fortunately, it is a challenge that can be overcome.   

The Importance of Humility to Diversity and Inclusion

The importance of humility to diversity and inclusion may not be immediately apparent.   However, humility boosts diversity in at least two ways. 

First, humility boosts inclusivity.  The Catalyst researchers found that the EACH approach was key to creating an inclusive work environment.  As previously discussed here, diversity needs inclusion to succeed.  Because humility promotes inclusion, it should be a priority for any organization that values diversity.

Second, humility creates space for improvement.  A diverse workplace brings different people together.  Despite these differences, an arrogant leader assumes that he knows everything he needs to know about his colleagues.  On the other hand, a humble leader understands that she has much to learn about people who are different.  After admitting what she does not know, she can take the next logical and powerful step: learning.  Arrogance stops the learning process, but humility promotes it.

Moreover, arrogant leaders never admit their mistakes.  So, when a conflict based on difference develops or microaggressions occur, bad bosses will not admit that their organization has room to improve.  By contrast, a humble leader knows that even a good organization can be better.  In an environment where mistakes are owned, microaggressions and other behaviors that destroy diversity and inhibit inclusion can be appropriately addressed. 

Humility in Practice

Though humility is a lofty concept, luckily, it is not difficult to put into practice.  The Catalyst researchers found that humble leaders admitted their mistakes, learned from criticism, and acknowledged the contributions of others.  These steps are small and manageable.  A leader or an organization that is currently struggling can, by choosing to admit mistakes, learn from criticism, and acknowledge others, quickly reverse its course.       

Another key component to humility is listening with an open mind.  Discussions about differences based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and other characteristics are often emotional.  When allegations of racism, sexism, homophobia, or other prejudices happen, emotions are especially raw.   While immediately and vigorously defending oneself from a charge of bias may feel like a natural reaction, that reaction stems from arrogance.  An arrogant leader treats the conversation as a personal attack and responds in kind.  By doing so, he effectively ends any real discussion of the topic and blocks any opportunity to learn or grow.     

An arrogant leader lashes out, but a humble leader listens in.  A humble leader confronting the same situation will take a step back, and more importantly, she will take a moment to listen. A humble leader listens –  even if she disagrees – because she wants her employees to know that their feelings are valued.  Moreover, she knows that even if she doesn’t fully agree, listening will provide her with valuable feedback.  That feedback will enable her to make any changes that are necessary to handle the situation. 

The importance of humility to diversity and inclusion cannot be overstated.  To learn more about fostering humility in your organization, enroll in the Equity Toolkit e-courses. The Equity Toolkit is an interactive, four-course online series containing essential, research-based concepts on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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