In human interactions as well as human-organization interactions we encounter, all the time, individuals and institutions displaying diverse traits, each at different points of a respective spectrum. For example, we may encounter individuals who are optimistic or pessimistic or at some point in optimism-pessimism spectrum. Similar positioning could be true of institutions as well; institutions that would never abandon growth path despite adversities and those that immediately downsize at the first sign of demand recession. The number of such traits on which individuals and institutions can be so classified are many. However, two traits that govern the relationships within and between individuals as well as institutions are extremely critical to individual and institutional development.
The two traits that are particularly important in this context are humility and arrogance. These two traits are the visible or felt expressions of how individuals and institutions think or behave with and among each other. While these are fairly commonplace words, they are also commonly misunderstood; it is, therefore, worthwhile to recall their essence. Humility is the endearing way of thinking and behaving that comes from considering that one is not necessarily better, smarter or more important than other people, whether one actually is or not. Arrogance, in direct contrast, is the insulting way of thinking and behaving that comes from believing that one is better, smarter or more important than other people, whether one actually is or not. Like all positive and pristine traits, humility is hard to ingrain while like all negative and crude traits, arrogance is easy to embrace.
Ironically, behaviour and action patterns that are so dissimilar as humility and arrogance are built on common foundations. Perceptions of knowledge, capability, competence and accomplishment usually drive one’s own as well as others’ belief of what one is. It is human nature to continuously evaluate oneself and others on these aspects, and position oneself to be superior or inferior vis-à-vis others. It is easy to feel egoistic (which is just a step away from arrogance) in the context of one’s superiority and feel defeatist (which is just a step away from worthlessness) in awareness of one’s inferiority. In contrast, it requires a special kind of personality disposition to be humble in spite of superiority and strong in spite of inferiority. This challenge is compounded as one receives continuous feedback, direct and indirect as well as genuine and timeserving, from one’s network.
These traits are independent of scaling in competence. For example, a teacher is naturally required to be highly knowledgeable compared to the students. That does not bestow any right to be arrogant on the part of the teacher because that differential capability is the fundamental basis of such teacher-student relationship. On the other hand, a great teacher remains humble by believing that he or she needs to learn more to teach better, and even accepts the occasional brilliant repartees and queries from the students. Similarly, a manager or a specialist by virtue of his or her experience ought to know more than his or her staff but, by no means, it is an unnatural accomplishment that should make the manager or a specialist even a wee bit arrogant. On the other hand, a great manager or specialist always looks to expand his or her frontiers of knowledge besides welcoming the fresh thoughts of youngsters.
Institutions have a different set of influencers. Their competence is reflected in terms of their market share and profitability. As a result of their achievements on these two dimensions, they trend as performers, and as performers they get branded too. Most start-ups and young firms achieve this by being capable as well as humble. However, with positive trending and branding, they keep acquiring scale. Most institutions as they grow in scale face an inflection point, unique in each case, from which point they start behaving and acting less vulnerable and more invincible. Akin to the individual recount earlier, this also represents a humility-arrogance tipping point. Scale often leads to distance; between employees and the management, within employees, and more importantly between organizations and their customers.
At and from such an inflection point, an institution starts believing that it knows what is right –for itself as well as its employees and customers. The level of functional specialization and sophistication of data analytics may well sustain the institutions on performance journey but radically alter how they are perceived in terms of their relative humility and arrogance. For example, an increment letter that arrives in the mail box of each employee of a one-lakh employee strong company as immediately as the day after performance year close, despite its efficiency, would be perceived to be shockingly impersonal (which is a step or two away from arrogance). If in that organization, the increment letter, duly signed by a CXO, is personally handed over by the manager to each employee (even if with a few days of delay), the act would reflect continuing institutional care (which is a shade or two closer to humility).
Adding complexity to the situation is that humility and arrogance are capable of being faked. An individual or institution may be intrinsically arrogant but may make it appear as aggression (which is considered a surrogate for competitiveness!). Others may cultivate humility as a means to an end, notwithstanding not so modest views of themselves. Some individuals or institutions may take humility to the extremes of perpetual silence and acceptance leading to doubts on intrinsic capability (also, as surrogates of passive aggression). Others may alternate between flashes of arrogance and swathes of humility to reconcile their inner contradictions. Given that human nature is not perfect, having humility inside and faking aggression outside or vice versa is hardly an appropriate state of individual or institutional thought and action.
The ideal ecosystem would comprise interactions on three dimensions; between individuals, between individuals and institutions and between institutions. In terms of levels of endowments or competencies, the players can never be equal but the relationships can certainly be equitable. Individual level collaboration, between the competent and not-so-component, is the foundation of building humility in organizational ecosystem. Collaboration between individuals and institutions, howsoever seemingly giver an institution is and receiver an individual is, constitutes the foundation of social ecosystem. Collaboration across any value chain constitutes the foundation of industrial ecosystem. An Original Equipment Manufacturer(OEM) could be endowed with better marketing and financial power than a small component maker but the former ought to be cognizant of the essentiality (and not the optionality) of the component maker to the OEM.
When concepts such as humility and arrogance are discussed, the focus tends to be on the visibly gross or misleadingly subtle aspects of the concepts. Just as being silent is not being humble, being in an agreeing or obsequious mode does not constitute humility. Similarly proposing or communicating an alternative way of thought or action does not reflect lack of humility (let alone display of arrogance). Humility is the ability to convey what is correct and appropriate to context and content in a manner that does not reflect superiority, and in a manner that the recipient is inspired to absorb the context. Humility is the ability to learn as much as possible and relevant from other individuals and institutions. In the ultimate analysis, humility is the ability share, spread and enhance knowledge in a collaborative and inspirational manner.
In a similar manner, arrogance does not mean only insulting way of thought, expression or action. Arrogance can be very subtle too. When sales executives in a retail store of iconic brands chat amongst themselves for minutes without connecting with customers it is nothing but subtle institutional arrogance. When members of organizations, private or public, provide inadequate responses or take inordinate time to serve stakeholders that too is institutional arrogance. In several cases, the line between individual and institutional arrogance is rather thin. Humility needs to be a key anchor of family and organizational culture to be able to nurture humility and eliminate arrogance even when they are in the respective subtlest forms,
Off harm’s way, through HARM model
While we have all grown to accept humility as a rare sparkle and arrogance as a common inevitability of high-stress life, we need to take a break, and recognize the insidiously harmful effects of lack of humility or exertion of arrogance, gross or subtle, on enhancing stress levels in the society. We should aim to develop greater and more perceptive understanding of these commonly misunderstood concepts and reflect on them through a Humility-Arrogance Relational Matrix (HARM). Fundamentally, being humble knowing one’s limitations is a source of strength but being humble with all the awareness of one’s competences is an even greater source of strength. Similarly, forsaking ego despite the weaknesses of others is a source of strength but eschewing ego despite the awareness of one’s superiority is an even greater source of strength.
Four combinations are possible. Individuals can be humble but institutions can be arrogant – especially commercially and rapidly successful organizations; it requires individuals to persevere even as it behoves key decision makers to launch a culture journey in institutions. Individuals can be arrogant but institutions, especially service oriented and non-governmental organizations can be humble; it requires individuals to reflect and remediate even as the organizations persevere on their path. Both individuals and institutions can be arrogant – this could be a concomitant of a despotic culture which smothers creativity and demands servility; mercifully such combinations are few but unless they are transformed the overall national ecosystem can be destroyed. In the virtuous grid, the individual as well as the institution would be competent and capable; such individuals and institutions would paradoxically render a great service to the nation by being less modest about their uniqueness and imbibing other individuals and institutions with their implicit drivers of humility.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on April 10, 2016