Humility at Work: How to Humble Yourself on the Job

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Delivering Happiness" by Tony Hsieh. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Can being overconfident make you worse at your job? How can you maintain a good level of humility at work?

Staying humble and thinking rationally is imperative for entrepreneurs and employees. Overconfidence can lead to reckless decisions and fractured work friendships, but former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh believes that there is a way to avoid this by acting with humility at work.

Here’s more on why you should stay humble at work, and how to avoid overconfidence.

Avoid Overconfidence

Overconfidence is a dangerous mistake for entrepreneurs to make, Hsieh says, as it encourages reckless decisions. Hsieh struggled with overconfidence throughout his life: When one business decision succeeded, he would approach the next opportunity as if it was guaranteed to succeed as well. He wouldn’t consider whether the market or his circumstances had changed since his initial success and made bad investments as a result.

For example, after leaving LinkExchange, Hsieh started an investment fund called Venture Frogs. He raised money for the fund easily and his investments were profitable. He was so successful that he didn’t worry about the dot-com crash that occurred in 2000. Hsieh was overconfident because he succeeded in the past, so he didn’t consider how the new circumstances of the crash would affect his business. As a result, he invested all the fund’s money in companies that started failing in the crash and was unable to raise more.

Hsieh says this experience taught him to act with humility at work by carefully weighing the risks and benefits of a decision before making it, rather than expecting success because he succeeded in the past.

The Dot-Com Crash and Avoiding Overconfidence

The dot-com crash occurred because of the same overconfidence Hsieh warns against. People were excited about internet companies and overconfident that these companies would succeed. These people invested in internet companies without properly estimating the risks of said investments. Thus, the fledgling internet companies received a lot of money very quickly.

In turn, these internet companies were overconfident that the investments would continue, so they didn’t handle their finances properly, spending the money as quickly as they received it to grow larger. When the investments dwindled, the companies went out of business because they were so focused on growing that they didn’t have any savings or sustainable sources of income. The few companies that did survive the crash did so because they were practical about their financial situation and acted with humility. At work, these companies didn’t have to worry about financial struggles.

How can you avoid the kind of dangerous overconfidence that led to the events above? While Hsieh suggests combating overconfidence by weighting the risks and benefits of a decision, he doesn’t explain how to do so. Here are a couple of tips:

1. Be critical of your ideas. In Principles, Ray Dalio suggests asking yourself, “How do I know I’m right? What am I missing?” before making a decision. These questions force you to use critical thinking, rather than being overconfident that you’re always right.

2. Set tripwires for taking action. It’s easy to become complacent and overconfident in your company’s proven historical approach. However, market situations change quickly, and your responses must change accordingly. Determine in advance what market shifts would necessitate a change in approach—these are your “tripwires.” Also, determine in advance how you’d need to adapt to survive the tripwire. Once the market meets these tripwire conditions, you can quickly adapt to the new situation. If you fail to do so, your business may crumble.

For example, Kodak assumed the low quality of digital pictures would maintain physical photos’ popularity. If Kodak had set a tripwire for changing its approach—for example, digital resolution improving to a certain point—it could’ve adapted and survived. Instead, Kodak was overconfident in its historical approach, didn’t adapt, and went bankrupt.

Humility at Work Leads to Friendship

Hsieh explains that honest communication strengthens relationships and encourages respect. Similarly, humility at work encourages respect because employees focus less on their own accomplishments and more on encouraging and uplifting others, which is also important for relationships.

You can mitigate possible friendship-related problems by encouraging an environment of communication, humility, and compassion, as Hsieh suggests. Managers can foster such an environment by exemplifying these qualities themselves, as their employees will likely follow their lead. By encouraging these factors, management shows it supports friendly relationships, which eases the pressure of professionalism and encourages employees to solve conflicts amicably. When managers take these steps, employees can reap the benefits of work friendships with fewer risks.

Humility is arguably very important to exemplify because it can naturally lead to the other traits. Humility means recognizing that you’re no more or less important than any other person: Once you realize this and treat other people accordingly, better communication and compassion are easier to nurture as well. As such, practice humility at work by listening to other people rather than being distracted by your own opinions or ideas.

Humility at Work: How to Humble Yourself on the Job

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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