Humility in the Workplace: The Key to Improvement

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Trillion Dollar Coach" by Bill Campbell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the importance of humility in the workplace? What does it look like?

Humility in the workplace allows you to constantly improve. If you let your ego get in the way, you won’t be willing to take constructive feedback that can help.

Keep reading for more about humility in the workplace.

Insist on Humility in the Workplace

The principle: In order for anyone to improve, they need to be humble. The traits that make an employee or executive “coachable” include humility in the workplace, honesty, perseverance, and a perpetual willingness to learn. Campbell’s theory of coaching started with the idea that all people have value, and it’s not based on their title in the company. It’s based on who they are and how much they’re willing to improve. A coach’s job is to increase the value of the person they’re coaching, but that requires the “coachee” to be humble, hungry for self-improvement, and always willing to learn. The “coachee” needs to be self-aware and understand his or her own strengths and limitations. There’s no room for pretending you’re more than you are. 

Example: When Jonathan Rosenberg, a seasoned CEO who had worked with other startups, came to Google’s offices for a meeting in 2002, he thought he was coming to accept a job offer. But instead he had to face one final hiring hurdle—he had to meet Campbell—and Rosenberg had no idea who he was. Campbell asked Rosenberg point-blank if he was coachable. 

Rosenberg replied, “It depends on the coach.” This infuriated Campbell, who stood up to leave the meeting. Rosenberg started back-pedaling, realizing that maybe he shouldn’t have been so brash. Campbell eventually sat back down and explained that he was only willing to work with people who were humble, curious, and wanted to learn. 

Don’t Tell People What to Do

The principle: Guide people toward making their own good decisions. Campbell didn’t tell people what the right answer was. Instead, he believed in the instructive power of stories. Instead of doling out his version of the best decision, he would tell anecdotes about events that had happened in his own business career that might help guide them to making the best decision on their own. Often he would simply listen and ask probing questions, then let them come to their own conclusions. 

Coaches and leaders can help people discover what they need to do and solve their own problems without telling them directly. Campbell suggested that managers should stop using controlling language and instead frame their guidance as questions. Instead of saying, “Here’s what we’re going to do,” say “What do you think?” Instead of saying, “Do it this way instead of that way,” try “How could you do it differently?” Employees feel more engaged when managers reframe the way they communicate to sound less authoritative.

Humility in the Workplace: The Key to Improvement

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Bill Campbell's "Trillion Dollar Coach" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Trillion Dollar Coach summary :

  • How Bill Campbell went from football coach to tech coach
  • The 4 pillars of Campbell's leadership philosophy
  • How the King Arthur Round Table model for making decisions empowers employees

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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