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Is it Hard to be Humble?


March 31, 2014

If you’ve ever wondered what your colleagues think of where your talents and strengths lie, – or what their opinion is of what you need change in order to develop, perform and achieve – then a 360 Feedback process might be for you.

A 360 process enables you to compare your views of yourself with those of your senior leaders, peers, direct reports and other stakeholders, using an agreed set of competencies for your role.  But should it be ‘hard to be humble’ or is modesty the best policy when assessing yourself?

In the past couple of weeks I’ve held over 30 feedback sessions with Senior Managers as part of 360 processes.   Many of these Managers’ self-assessments were very close to the feedback from their survey respondents.  That’s a good sign for their organisations.  For these managers it means  that there is probably an expressed agreement and understanding as to how their role ‘should’ be performed with a healthy level of discussion already taking place.

Low scoring

For this article though, I’ll focus on those managers who scored themselves much lower than their respondents.  In my experience, there are a number of reasons for this which I would carefully explore in a feedback session:

  1. ‘False Modesty’: by giving themselves low or ‘average’ scores when the respondents score them highly, managers believe that their report looks favourable.  This is a fruitless approach as they will be the only person to view their report (apart from me as their coach!)
  2. Lack of Awareness: the manager really is unaware of how well they are performing, perhaps because their own manager is not proficient at discussing their performance.
  3. ‘Cry for help’:  although this is a strong phrase sometimes the manager is openly admitting to a lack of competence in an aspect of their role – maybe for the first time.
  4. ‘Lack of Confidence’:  the manager might not feel confident in their role in some way, perhaps related to using certain skills or dealing with particular situations.
  5. ‘Toughness’: the manager is traditionally ‘harder’ on themselves than others and, as one  person told me, “never will score anyone on either extreme of a scale”!
  6. Humility: the manager has learned not to ‘show off’ or ‘blow their own trumpet’, either from earlier years or in the particular circumstances of their current employment.

In the UK, our typical culture is one of playing down success, being modest and avoiding self-promotion. However, is it OK not to be humble?  And, therefore, is it OK to give yourself top marks for a competence? In answer to both, I believe it is.

Playing to Strengths

It’s vital that we’re aware of our strengths. Sometimes we’ll only find out we’re good at something when someone else tells us.  Sometimes we’ll know because of the results we achieve.  But we need to admit to them, for our own benefit.

Much has been researched and written about playing to strengths.  Statistics published by Gallup state that employees who focus on their strengths every day are “six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs and three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general”.*

An high awareness of our strengths allows us to:

  • enjoy being ‘in the flow’ – when we feel like we’re effortlessly performing to our best
  • perform with confidence when we’re going into situations or actioning tasks that will call on our strengths
  • make career decisions on the basis of choosing or accepting roles that we are more likely to enjoy and feel engaged with.  Imagine the opposite – accepting a role that’s going to ‘bend you out of shape’!
  • identify our best position in a team formation
  • support our colleagues and team members in identifying their strengths too.

You’re Good at This!

So , in answer to the question posed in the title of this article, some people don’t find it hard to be humble.  In fact, they find it comes easily.  The concern I’m expressing is that we need to be careful that humility does not get mixed up with self-deprecation nor that it results from a lack of self-awareness.  We need to check that it does not get in the way of our enjoyment of our roles, making useful career decisions and achieving our potential.

So, go on, tell yourself what you’re really good at!

If you’re interested in running a professional 360 process for yourself or a cohort of developing colleagues and would like to use our expertise in people development, contact us at or call us on +44 (0) 7840 323585 and we’ll be delighted to progress this with you.

Here’s a light-hearted view of how Mac Davis goes about singing his own praises … with a little help from some other Muppets!

* Tom Rath, Strengths Finder 2.0, published by Gallup (2007)

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