Intellectual Humility: The Cure is in, But You Can’t Buy it in Stores

Do you remember when Emotional Intelligence (EI) surpassed the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) as your ticket to success in life? Everyone got so excited; it was front-page news for years! Then Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers, and everyone started talking about 10,000 hours. But today, there is yet another irrefutable predictor of success: intellectual humility.

I first stumbled upon the term “intellectual humility” while researching hiring practices for my book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? I found out that Google tested job candidates for intellectual humility at the same time as they tested for “general cognitive ability” and “emerging leadership.” The idea is to find people who could think clearly and act decisively without getting so attached to their opinions that they would dismiss everyone else’s.

Intellectual humility differs from regular humility. It is not about taking or giving credit or putting yourself on a pedestal. Rather, it is your ability to avoid bias in your thinking and stay open and alert to new information, no matter how much you think you know.

It’s not surprising for a manager to want this trait in his employees. Just think of the alternative. Would you trust a roomful of self-proclaimed geniuses to get anything done? But it may be even more important for the boss himself to be intellectually humble.

If yours is a company that struggles to engage employees, look around and see how many bosses are listening to their people. How long does it take for the boss to change his mind after he’s been proven wrong? And how many of them seek to prove themselves wrong?

Engaging people can be as simple as encouraging them to express themselves in their area of expertise. If you want them to stay engaged, you must receive their input with respect and gratitude—whether or not you agree with it. It’s true in a casual conversation, and it’s true at work.

If you’ve tried intellectual humility, I’ll bet you’ve noticed something peculiar. It’s contagious. It makes those around you feel like they’ve gotten a fair shake. They stop being defensive. With nothing to defend, they work through their previously irreconcilable differences. Intellectually humble bosses make better choices, and the teams have an easier time getting behind them.

On a larger scale, intellectual humility could become our generation’s saving grace. It could protect our businesses and our public institutions. It could mend our broken marriages. There’s only one problem: intellectual humility is hard to find.

Mark Twain said in his autobiography: “How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!” Modern psychology has proven him right a thousand times over. We are creatures of confirmation bias. Correcting one’s own thinking seems to go against the hierarchical nature of learning.

To make things worse, our confirmation bias is not limited to beliefs we’ve formed in early childhood or primitive survival strategies we’ve inherited from our ancestors. Its reach is much broader and deeper than we realize. We learn new and erroneous information every day. And, thanks to our confirmation bias, not only are we unable to catch the error in the first place, but we are blind to any new fact that puts it in doubt.

A classic psychology experiment illustrates this point. The experiment took place at Stanford University in 1975. Participating students were given twenty-five pairs of suicide notes, one real, one fake, and asked to guess which was which. Even though all the students did a poor job, half of them were told they almost always guessed right. The other half was told that they almost always guessed wrong.

Next, the researchers revealed the truth and asked each student to guess how many notes he or she got right and what the average score was for the whole group. It turned out that the students from the first half thought they did much better than the average—even though their reason for believing it had been taken away. Likewise, the second half thought they did much worse than average.

Although disturbing, the findings are hardly surprising. We have all observed confirmation bias in action every time we’ve argued politics, religion, and the comparative advantages of Apple vs. Samsung. We know how hardheaded and irrational people get about the dumbest things.

So, shouldn’t all this knowledge make us better?

It should, but it doesn’t because we can’t see it in ourselves. As you were reading about the suicide note experiment, did you say to yourself: “Wow, these are some dumb Stanford students! If I had been there, I would have done much better.”

If you did, you showed more faith in your rightness than in the whole field of psychology combined. Congrats! You’ve just failed your intellectual humility test. Don’t bother sending your resume to Google. More importantly, think of the impact your attitude has had on your life and work.

But maybe intellectual humility is closer than we think. Maybe we don’t need to defeat our own psychology and prove a bunch of Stanford professors wrong. What if we gave up and admitted to ourselves that our brains are a sorry mess of random facts and confirmation biases?

What better reason to be intellectually humble?


If you like intellectually humble employees, you might like my book, because it helps you hire and keep them.

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Written by

Tim Eisenhauer is a co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.


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