Tips for Career Success - Tip 15: Be Humble

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Humility is very becoming.  Many of the people that I look up to most in life are the people that show a wealth of humility.  The challenge is that this article series is all about how to be successful, and guess what: the more successful you are, the harder it is to be humble!  Go figure, right?  What is interesting is that those same humble people that I look up to are also some of the most successful people that I know.  Like many of my tips, this is another area that I know I struggle.  When I have any type of success, even a small success, I love to talk to people about it.  In general, I love to talk, but there is something especially fun when talking about personal successes.  It’s innate in all of us.  For those of you with kids, think about when you kid does something wrong vs. when they do something great.  If your kid comes home from school and got in trouble that day, it is like pulling teeth to get them to talk to you about it.  However, if your kid got a great grade on a test, or was recognized in some way, they can’t wait to share that when they get home.  Bragging about our successes is something that we have all done or have seen in others, and it makes sense: it is more fun/ rewarding/ joy-bringing to share our successes than our failures.  How then do we stay humble when it is in our nature to brag?  In this article, we will look at three practical approaches to staying humble, even in your successes: share credit, use self-humbling talk, and allow others to brag for you. 

Share Credit

One key to staying humble when you are successful is to share credit for your accomplishments.  For some this is natural, but for others, it is hard to do.  If it is not natural for you to share credit, then you must learn to retrain your thinking until it is natural. 

When I had just moved to Chicago to start a new consulting job, one of the owners at the firm I was at asked for volunteers for a special project that needed to be completed in addition to regular work hours.  The project was to design a model for clinical trials and reports that would sit on top of that model so that we would be able to market this solution as IP we had around clinical trials data.  At the time, two of my colleagues quickly volunteered (one to create the model and one to create the reports).  About a week before this project was due, the owner approached me and asked me to put in extra time to help the person working on the model, because he felt that part of the project was behind.  I reached out to the person and found out that over the previous two months, nothing had been accomplished.  As a result, I spent my nights that week and the weekend creating the model from scratch.  At the next company meeting, our owner thanked the two original volunteers for doing such an excellent job on the model and reports and recognized them publicly.  Do you want to guess what the person responsible for the model said?  Nothing.  Nada.  They just smiled and reaped the glory for work they had not even touched.  They offered nothing in way of acknowledgement to that fact that I had actually done all of their work for them.  I share this story, for two reasons: 1.) because I am sure that many of you reading this hear it and realize how unbecoming it was for that person to not share the credit and 2.) because since that time and over the last decade, I have been asked by two separate clients about the person in question after they received this person’s resume and saw the shared previous employer.  On both occasions, I shared the above story, and I know that on both occasions doing so impacted the clients’ decisions not to make an offer to the person.  The moral of the story – it pays to share credit and it can even hurt you when you do not.

Now let’s look at that same scenario and how it could have gone differently.  Had the person responded to the owner and said something along the lines of, “thank you for recognizing me, but Dustin actually did all of the work on this… we really owe him the gratitude”, then I would have not been left with a bad taste in my mouth about the person.  When asked by clients about the person, I likely would have found a positive story to share about some of the things that the person did well.  As a result, the person could have very-well ended up in one of the jobs they were applying for and found more success in their career.  Instead, the one instance went from being an opportunity for this person to make a positive impression on me to a situation where they made a lasting negative impression. 

The thing about when people share credit is that it is becoming.  When I think about the people that I am most impressed with in our company, they are not necessarily the ones with the most technical skills.  In many cases, they are the ones with above average technical skills, but who are consistently shining the spotlight on others in our company who help them.  In the same way, the next time that someone recognizes you for a job well done, take the time to reflect on who helped you to be successful and pass the recognition forward.  Doing so could have a lasting impact on your success.

Use Self-humbling Talk

Self-deprecation can definitely be your friend when it comes to humility.  However, be careful to use it sparingly.  There was a great video on Saturday Night Live that a co-worker shared with me recently.  In the video, a group of women are standing around and as each new one arrives and the others give her a compliment, she responds with extreme self-deprecation.  Eventually, one girl arrives and just says thanks, and the other girls are so offended that they just cannot take it.  While it is a bit of a slapstick skit, there is also a very nice satirical element to it in the fact that it points out how too much self-deprecation makes people view you as either self-loathing or compliment fishing.  Neither of these two views are good ones.  So, how then do you use self-humbling talk or self-deprecating humor in an effective way? 

To answer this, I will share another example.  Recently, one of my colleagues who is exceptionally good with Cognos made a pretty decent mistake in our internal environment.  We were planning to use the environment for a training session that was coming in at the end of the weekend.  Unfortunately, the person made a change to the JAVA_HOME environment variable on the Windows server where this training was going to be conducted, and it ultimately caused our Cognos environment to crash.  Rather than looking to avoid the blame for the mistake, the person took it as an opportunity to use some self-deprecating humor: they changed their name in our office Slack Workspace to “JAVA_HOMELESS”.  To me, it was a fun way to acknowledge their mistake without dwelling on it, and it got a nice chuckle out of me (because yes, I’m a nerd at heart). 

In a similar way, try not to take yourself too seriously.  If you make a mistake, own up to it.  If you have an amazing success, it is ok to say something like, “well, I’m still no Cognos Paul” (this is one that I use frequently).  In the end, people will enjoy being around you more if they see that you understand you are not perfect, since no one is. 

Allow Others to Brag for You

The final point that I want to make is that you can be humble and still get credit by allowing others to brag on your behalf.  Now, this does not mean to setup a secret connection in your company where you and the other person go around broadcasting each other’s accomplishments (although that is not really a bad idea).  This means to choose not to share about your successes, because if they are large successes, someone else will likely share them for you.  I see great examples of this at PMsquare every day.  We have a program that we call “PM2 Props”.  The gist of the program is that anyone in our company can send out a company-wide email with the Subject of “PM2 Props” to share the success of another colleague.  As a result, when we have consultants doing exception work for our clients, sales people helping one another out with a client, or any of the rest of our team going above and beyond, we see these emails sent out so that everyone can here about the great work that each of us is doing. 

Now, I understand that your company may not have a “PM2 Props” equivalent, but that is OK.  Start your own.  Maybe a colleague of yours did something that really helped you out – send a department-wide email and share your appreciation with the rest of the team.  Over time, you will likely see that others pick up on it and start to do the same thing.


In summary, be sure to give credit with others who have helped you to be successful, use self-humbling talk to remind yourself that you are not perfect and to allow others to see that you do not think you are perfect, and realize that when you do not brag about yourself, others will often brag for you.  Join us again next month for Tip 14: Be Boastful. Be sure to subscribe to our analytics newsletter for data and analytics news, updates, and insights delivered directly to your inbox.

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