Learning & Development

Intellectual Humility: The Essential Virtue to Navigate Today’s Workplace

I don’t know!”

“I was wrong!”

These phrases are rare gems that remain hidden in an overconfident world: today, admitting mistakes is mainly considered as impotence and failure.

As proof, common synonyms for the word ‘humility’ are ‘abasement’ or ‘submissiveness’ – hardly desirable traits. But our tendency to reason and speak in order to be right or to condemn, rather than to deeply understand, leads us to blindly isolate ourselves in a thinking system held together with bias and arrogance.

intellectual humility

However, as change is accelerating – whether at social, medical, political or technological levels – our ability to reflect and demonstrate intellectual humility becomes vital.

And here, Emeric Kubiak, head of science and psychologist at HR technology firm AssessFirst, discusses how intellectual humility is the essential virtue we need to navigate and thrive in today’s workplace (and in the world in a more general way).

Self-doubt, Ego, and the Assessment of Our Own Ability

No one likes to be bad, or even average. As a result, humans have a strong propensity to overestimate ability and knowledge, as well as underestimate limitations.

We are therefore naturally subject to an illusory superiority bias, which satisfies our ego, thinking of ourselves as above average – especially when we have limited knowledge in a particular area.

Within the last 18 months, we have seen this overconfidence proudly displayed across mass media and social networks as a result of Covid-19. A recent study showed that nearly 80% of people assumed that their level of knowledge about the virus was above average: supporting anti-vaccine movements and pseudo-expert commentary across social media feeds.

This tendency can raise a smile in us when it is low stakes. Who’s never had fun in the stands with a sports fan who insists they can do a better job than the cup winning coach? But the consequences become more serious because of our increased and shared access to information that concerns more high stakes matters.

This month, a fake press release was distributed claiming that Walmart would begin accepting cryptocurrency. The news rapidly spread and crypto prices rose before Walmart corrected the release and confirmed this to be a hoax. By the time the correction had made it out, some crypto traders had profited before the price came crashing back down, leaving other investors out of pocket.  

Many of us overestimate our ability to distinguish between legitimate press titles and false ones, and we modify our beliefs and our behaviour as a result of these all the time. According to studies, people least equipped to distinguish between truth and fiction are typically the ones least aware of their own limits, and the most likely to believe fake content and to propagate it further.

Peter L. Samuelson and Ian M. Church, professors of epistemology and philosophy, believe that the human tendency to rely too often on heuristics or intuition can lead to this form of intellectual arrogance.

Of course, occasionally relying on your intuition can be useful, allowing you to make accurate predictions in some – rare – activities (for example, in high-performance sport). Intellectual arrogance will develop when individuals have unreliable intuition, and that they cannot understand the need to step back and consider factual elements of reflection rather than egocentric ones.

Individuals more inclined to analytical thinking therefore have a metacognitive advantage, because they are aware of their deliberate reasoning and also of its intuitive alternative. As a result, they assess their abilities – and those of others – more objectively. Conversely, intuitive thinkers are primarily aware of their intuition, and, when they are wrong, are less able to accurately estimate their performance.

A Critical Necessity

The human brain has many blind spots – even an ironic one that encourages us to believe that we have less than others. These blind spots are natural but become problematic when they stop us from challenging our knowledge and progressing. Indeed, to progress, and to reduce the gap between our real capacity and our perceived capacity, we need to admit that we can be wrong.

This is why intellectual humility is a critical necessity for today’s workplace, and a behaviour that should be sought out and encouraged by HR leaders building organisations that are future-proofed.

Different from general humility, intellectual humility is defined as the ability to recognise that our beliefs and opinions may be wrong, encouraging us to be aware of our intellectual limitations.

Elizabeth Krumrei-Mancuso and Steven Rouse, professors of psychology at Pepperdine University, conceptualised it in four aspects:

  1. Independence of intellect and ego
  2. Openness to revising one’s point of view
  3. Respect for the point of view of others
  4. Lack of intellectual overconfidence

Nonetheless, intellectual humility should not be assimilated to a form of servility. Rather, intellectual humility resides in the balance between two extremes: knowing how to question our opinion (and accept that we were wrong when we are faced with the obvious) and knowing when not to question it. As proposed by Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and Wharton’s professor, it’s much more an ability to think again.

New research has amply demonstrated the benefits of adopting such a posture. Intellectually humble individuals are, for example, more likely to try to learn more in a field in which they have initially failed to master, or to tolerate ambiguity.

The Future is AI

Faced with global changes and the polarisation of certain ideas, it is therefore important to succeed in relieving ourselves of our self-centred and intuitive reflections, opening our thinking to other standards. New standards could be found in other people’s viewpoints, or in artificial ones (AI, analytical systems, etc.). The idea here is not to externalise all our cognition to an ‘other’, but to actively engage in a more analytical mode of thinking, therefore limiting bias.

Concerning AI in particular, everyone must be able to overcome the influence that certain self-proclaimed experts, or information, may have on our desire to use it on a daily basis. Many people form an opinion on AI by reading sensationalised articles that favour opinion and emotion over fact.

We need to admit that well-designed AI has enormous potential to improve our lives. Also, just as it should not be followed blindly, it should not be rejected automatically out of pure ideal or passionate distrust. And while AI will increasingly punctuate our decisions in the coming years, it is the interest shown in these technologies, and their real understanding – How does it work? How can it help me make better decisions? – which will allow everyone to develop their autonomy and decision-making capacity. This new, more automated era therefore calls for critical judgment and insight into our own capabilities (and those of machines) in order to make informed decisions.

Increasing our ability to question our way of thinking and our distortions, even if it means questioning some of our deep beliefs, is therefore necessary to discern reality from fiction, develop our knowledge, and navigate the transformations of the future. While some of us may fear a loss of autonomy and view innovation as a threat, showing intellectual humility and utilizing a data-driven approach will allow everyone to find their place in tomorrow’s world, and workplace.

And this isn’t about saying that AI is right and humans are vulnerable to mistakes. In fact, machines may start to show more intellectual humility before us; IBM is already working on a way to give AI the ability to express itself when unsure. Now that’s real progress!