Are You Falling into the Trap of Anti-Humility Behaviors?

By: Josh

I don’t feel like I am actually part of this conversation at all.  

He just won’t shut up.  

She never asks me for my input.  

He thinks he has all the answers.  

Have you said any of these to yourself recently at work? Or maybe something similar?  

You’re not alone. And for leaders, this is a problem. 

Leaders are always communicating. In everything we say and we do; even what we don’t say and don’t do sends signals to our people. We communicate in big ways like in meetings, through big announcements of coming change, or at important offsite events. But we also communicate in small ways, every day. Those can be our emails, in passing between meetings, or how we behave in seemingly insignificant conversations – all which occur many times a day.   

I believe leaders who regularly consume the majority of conversation space prevent others from feeling like they belong or that they are valued, ultimately curbing those peoples’ commitment to the team. Leaders need to be aware of, and more importantly, avoid several conversation habits that signal a lack of humility. Avoiding these “anti-humility behaviors” builds safety, belonging, and commitment among your teammates.  

What are “Anti-Humility Behaviors?” 

Anti-humility behaviors are anything leaders do in everyday conversation that makes the discussion about them, where they do the majority of the talking, or when they try to add too much value. Let’s explore a few examples of conversation with an anti-humility leader.  

The know it all. This leader had the answer, knew they had the answer, and let the team know they had it in every meeting. It was their way or…well, there was no other way. And this occurred at every meeting or brainstorming session. There was no brainstorming in fact. Every discussion was spent listening to this leader explain the answer, why it is the right way, and how the team was going to execute it. There was no back-and-forth, no dissent, no divergent thinking. As I listened to this leader, I remember consistently thinking, “why am I even here? Why are we even trying to discuss this issue? There is no point. We are going to do what he wants anyway.” I left meetings with this person feeling that I had no value or stake in the matter.  

It’s all about me. We were all excited for the beginning of the ski season this year. Many of us had plans to ski during the upcoming holiday vacation window and several of us started to share where we were hoping to ski. But then one colleague started sharing about all the skiing he had already done. And he quickly dominated the conversation, reviewing how many different peaks he and his sons have already completed, their total vertical feet covered, and how much they are going to ski in the coming weeks. The conversation quickly died, because while his early skiing accomplishments for the season were impressive, it was clear that no one was more impressed with him than he was with himself. There was no room for me, or anyone, to contribute to the conversation, and honestly, we didn’t even want to. It was all about him.  

I’m sure the scenario sounds familiar. No matter the setting or topic, certain leaders can’t help but make everything about them. Even when unintentional, it has major impacts on the team.  

Adding too much value. I was recently talking with some colleagues over lunch, and we began sharing a few gifts we all received for Christmas. My friends received things like new headphones, running shoes, a GPS watch, and weights for their home gym. But after every gift was shared with the group, one particular friend had to inject with, “oh, you know what the best type of that is? It’s the… You should get the…” My friend couldn’t help but add value to each discussion. But unwittingly, his constant injections pushed us all to the peripheral because we apparently did not have the right brand or type of gadgets.  

Similarly, I led a leader development workshop for an organization not too long ago. As the discussion navigated to people sharing challenges in how to put many of the developmental principles into action, there was one seasoned leader who would consistently add comments like, “I dealt with that before, this is what I did to fix it.” While his intentions were benevolent, he was actually shutting the conversation down, focusing it all on him versus respecting the struggles others were experiencing. He prevented others from filling the discussion’s space.  

As leaders, we can unknowingly add too much value sometimes. An easy indicator may be when we start sentences with, “You should…”  

The Issue with Anti-Humility Behaviors 

There is a trend in all these leaders’ behaviors through each scenario: their contributions to conversation were all self-focused. None of it was oriented towards others, and there was no space for others to fill in the conversation.  

As a member of each conversation, I felt several things: 

  • I do not belong in this conversation. I am not adding value, at least in the eyes of the other person.  
  • They don’t care if I’m part of this conversation or not. 
  • I don’t feel like I have any space to contribute; I am not being heard 

If these anti-humility behaviors become habits, we build norms, expectations, and a non-inclusive culture. And I can’t imagine too many that want to spend a lot of time working in a culture like that. I certainly don’t.  

How to Avoid Falling into the Anti-Humility Trap 

So, if our seemingly small behaviors in daily events like conversation with teammates can have such a big impact, how do we avoid falling into these anti-humility traps? Here are a few starting recommendations. Integrate these behaviors as habits at work or wherever you lead to eradicate the anti-humility traps.  

  • Be interested, not interesting. I believe people become interested in those who are interested in them. It goes back to the old cliché of no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Focus on being interested in others during conversation, not on being interesting. Talk less, ask more. Be genuinely interested in others first and foremost. When you do, not only do you learn a lot about them and come to appreciate them more, but they walk away from the conversation feeling good – about themselves, about you, and your relationship.  
  • Use the acronym ‘WAIT’ – Why Am I Talking? I work to keep this acronym at the forefront of my mind any time I talk with someone. Am I talking to add value? Is it too much value? Am I talking about me? Too much? During one-on-one meetings or mentoring sessions, I even write this acronym at the top of my notes page to keep the reminder in physically in front of me. More does not always equal better. And that certainly applies to how much we are talking in a conversation.  
  • Play catch in conversations. Think of your conversation as a game of catch with the other person. They throw you the ball by asking a question. And you respond to the question. Then you throw the ball back by asking them a question. But if you hold on to the ball and never throw it back, it doesn’t become a very interesting session of catch. The same applies to our conversations. Keep it a fun and engaging game of catch by always throwing the ball back to the other person.  

Pay attention to your behavior in conversations this week. Do you seem to easily fall into an anti-humility trap? If so, what is your poison? Are you the know it all? The all-about-me? Or one that adds too much value?  

What impact is that having on others and your relationship with them? 

I encourage you to try to say less, ask more, and create space for others to fill.  

Leadership is a people business. Let’s make it more about them.  

What’s the Point of All This Reading Anyway?

6 Common Failures We Make When Leading Change

How Leaders Use Developmental Communication

Ready to Create Significant Impacts Through Your Leadership?

Only 48% of employees consider their leaders as intentional and high-quality. Are you part of that minority? We need more intentional leaders. 

Start your journey to becoming an intentional leader by downloading your free guide of the 10 habits of intentional leaders today.

And don't forget about the BONUS 25 practical strategies that you'll get, too!

Get Your FREE Guide