Can Humility help you move from diversity to inclusion in your organisation?

by Apr 25, 2018

Humility is the key for inclusion

Humility is not often talked about, but it is only through being humble that leaders can really excel.

I want to share with you a true story:

Theresa joined a company and found that she was the 2nd black senior woman in the company. For the first few months of working there, the other senior black woman kept her distance from Theresa. She was stand-offish and unfriendly. However when Theresa later got to know her, the other woman, Janice shared that she wanted to make sure that Theresa was good at her job before she invested in her. Not because she was worried that she’d leave but because she had worked hard to prove herself and she didn’t want to be tarred with the same brush as her if she was useless. It would have undone her years of effort.

This might not seem very supportive, but when you are in the minority of any type in an institution you carry the weight of you gender, race, sexuality etc on your shoulders. You represent all people from the minority group and as a result it doesn’t take much for your work to come crashing down. This may explain why women often say that they are not supported by other women at the top. The woman at the top knows how fragile their position is.



Assumptions don’t help diversity

Theresa’s organisation wouldn’t have understood this. On paper they were doing all the right things; recruiting a diverse group of people into the organisation to facilitate diversity of thought, creativity, innovation and ultimately a better bottom line, but with oh so many assumptions.

Were they open to hearing Janice’s truth about how it felt to be the only black woman in a senior role, or Theresa’s coming in 2nd? Not really. They knew that they were doing the right thing and that everyone should be happy as a result.

People can be forgiven for making assumptions, can’t they? Because, without them we are in a place of not knowing. And in the workplace we can either feel pride or even arrogance for knowing it all, or a sense of shame for not doing so.

Would anyone have been interested to have a conversation about race in the workplace, and how it was playing out for Theresa and Janice?

Probably not, as that would have taken humility.

Take steps to make your company more inclusive, not just diverse, with our workshop on Managing Unconscious Bias.

Pride or humility?

As a leader in the workplace there can be a sense of shame when we feel that we don’t get it right. It could be when we realise that we are not as inclusive as we’d like. Or when perhaps we are ticking the diversity box, but not helping people thrive in our environment. Shame seems to play a big role in the set backs individuals have in the workplace, alongside pride.

I once thought pride was shame’s opposite.

“Pride is not the opposite of shame, but it’s source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.”

General Iroh – General Iroh is a fictional character in the animation series Avatar, I never thought that I’d be quoting him.

Be humble

Humility is a cluster of attitudes that we can take towards ourselves by recognising our own fallibility, realizing that we don’t really know as much as you think, and owning our limitations and biases.

But being humble also means taking an active stance. It means seeing your worldview as open to improvement by the evidence and experience of other people. Being open to improvement is more than just being open to change. And it isn’t just a matter of self-improvement — using your genius to know even more. It is a matter of seeing your view as capable of improvement because of what others contribute.

Humility is a concept that has deep cultural and religious roots; it adds a layer of depth that introspection or self-reflection cannot reach.

Think about someone you’d consider a culturally competent leader. How high is their humility? Do they say they have a long way to go, make mistakes or cultural competence challenges?

It was Einstein who infamously said

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”

Why is humility so important?

In his 2001 book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, management consultant and writer Jim Collins identified several companies that have made a transition from good to great, and how each company sustained these changes after the leader left. When examining the leaders of these companies, Collins found that the CEOs had a unique mix of drive and humility.

“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” ― Mahatma Gandhi


  • Is most accurately judged when it is under strain. Like courage- you only know how brave I am when a lion runs into the room.
  • Is easier to observe accurately in others than it is in oneself.
  • Strengthens social bonds. It creates connection and space for a 2 way conversation to take place
  • Lubricates relationships that would otherwise clash due to competition.
  • May be related to better health outcomes. It reduces stress because you are calmer and reductions in stress have many health benefits particularly on your heart.

Humility Health Warning

Humble leaders who are young, non-white or female were reported as having to constantly prove their competence, making their humble behaviours both more expected and less valued. However, humble leaders who are experienced white males were reported as reaping large benefits from humbly admitting mistakes, praising followers and trying to learn.

Owens and Hekman offer straightforward advice to leaders. You can’t fake humility. You either genuinely want to grow and develop, or you don’t, and others pick up on this.

So how do you nurture humility?

We can start by looking past ourselves — and admitting that we don’t know it all:

1. Ask for feedback.

Who has asked for feedback in the last 7 days. On a personal level though, humility involves an accurate view of the self. Ask several close friends to be really honest about three things they appreciate about you and three areas where you might need some growth. It’s OK to be proud of your strengths, Davis says, as long as you acknowledge—and work on—your weaknesses.

2. Confront your prejudices.

Identify an area of diversity or culture that you struggle with or admittedly know little about. One of Davis’ students, for example, felt uncomfortable with elderly people and held strong opinions about what it meant to be older. As her class assignment, she visited a nursing home and interviewed the residents there about their past and current lives. “The intention should be to listen and learn,” he says, “not to argue or prove a point or confirm your suspicions.”

3. Start with a question.

It takes humility to show what you don’t know instead of what you do. He says-

“One good question is worth 100 good answers. Humility creates more oxygen in the room. It allows for others to participate, come together and make a change. If you think you already know everything or act like you do, other people will check out and things won’t get done as quickly or as well.”

4. Really listen.

You can ask thousands of questions, but if you don’t listen to the responses it won’t do any good. Listening does not obligate you to agree (nor does humility make you a passive doormat), but it does help dial down your own pride. Yours is not the only way of thinking or doing. After someone shares an opinion or experience, take a moment to digest what he or she said before you speak.

5. Accept setbacks.

Let yourself be humbled by your experiences. Shoemaker advises-

“If you don’t get your butt handed to you every now and then, you’re probably not deep enough in the work or the cause to make a real difference.”

Humility allows you to accept challenges without the fear of failure. And when those failures inevitably come, he says, use what you learned to do it better next time.

6. Discover awe.

Take notice of and express gratitude for the world’s beauty and wonder. Most simply put, being humble is recognizing that you are not the hub of the universe. It’s hard to maintain your self-centeredness when gazing up at the stars or into a newborn’s eyes.

I want to leave you with a poem by filmmaker Nic Askew, and some questions to mull over.

Each encounter

Each encounter holds the capacity to render us lighter

Or to colour the experience of our world darker

Each encounter holds the capacity to engage in our sense of wonder

Or to help us hide from noticing the experience of being human

Each encounter holds the capacity to tell its story without expectation

Or to force on the world an opinion of how it must be

Each encounter holds the capacity for us to recognize our sameness.

Or to escape into the experience of separateness

And with each encounter comes decision to make our worlds lighter or darker

Some questions to mull over

1 How humble are you personally?

2 How can you help people become more comfortable with not knowing all the answers?

3. What encounters are not taking place, like the ones that Theresa and Janice could have benefited from?


What sort of leader are you? Are you humble? Are you inclusive? Find out with our Leadership Assessment.


Jenny Garrett Contributor
Jenny Garrett is an Award Winning Coach with over 11 years experience of running a Global Business. She is a Freeman of the Guild of Entrepreneurs – City of London and was listed in Brummell Magazines Top 30 City Innovators 2016.
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