(Cover Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash)

Check out our review of Episode 1 and/or Episode 2 if you missed it!

Theme of this week’s podcast: Humility, a hidden ingredient in great teams

In this episode, Adam talks to people who’ve been involved in sports about humility, including former NBA player Shane Battier.

Key Takeaways

When we think of creating the best possible team, often our first reaction is to recruit the best, most qualified and most highly rated people.

However, according to research that isn’t the way to create the best team.

There is plenty of evidence to back this up: teams with higher amounts of ‘superstar’ members tend to perform less well than those with lower amount of ‘superstar’ members.

Why is this the case?

Because “Lots of stars means lots of egos and lots of egos means infighting”; all-stars are often in competition with one another to be the best, which often makes the team worse overall.

The problem is that we don’t know what makes a team ‘good’.

Part of our ignorance stems from the fact that we don’t define ‘all-stars’ the right way; contrary to popular belief, an all-star is not necessarily someone who has amazing statistics (i.e. those who produce the most, obtain the most deals, etc.).

There are what author Michael Lewis calls ‘no-stats all-stars’, those who don’t necessarily produce the most but fulfill a specific role on the team.

On the basketball court, these ‘role’ players do the not-so-glamorous things like rebounding, blocking shots, playing good defense, etc. What people don’t realize is that performing well in these peripheral areas is as important as doing what the all-stars are known to do: score.

But everyone seems to forget about them.

The reality is that every team needs role players to win. And, to be a role player, it takes humility.

What is humility?

Humility is having the self-awareness to know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.

“Humility isn’t having a low opinion of yourself. It’s about being grounded. So humility doesn’t require you to only do the grunt work. It’s about realizing you’re not above doing whatever the team needs.”

“[Humility is] really a commitment to something bigger than yourself.”

How do you show humility?

Humility is revealed through three key actions, according to Grant:

  1. Recognize your own shortcomings and limitations.
  2. Appreciate others’ strengths, give credit where it’s due and highlight the team’s success over your individual achievements.
  3. Show openness to learning from others. This passion for learning will rub off on your teammates.

Humility doesn’t only make those around you better individually, it makes them better teammates too: “Studies show that when you have humility in a team, people are more likely to play to their strengths. Instead of going for the spotlight, they take on the roles where they can help the team win” (Grant, 2018).

How does this happen?

It has to do with an emotion called moral elevation. Moral elevation is a feeling that you get when you see somebody else’s moral goodness, according to psychologist Sara Algoe:

“A lot of people say that they experience warm feelings in their chest, and so in our data, what we see is that people who experience moral elevation from seeing other people’s virtuous acts actually want to be virtuous themselves.”

In teams, humility can be contagious.

Emotional contagion is what happens when we become ‘infected’ with other people’s emotions, says leading expert on contagion and culture Sigal Barsade.

AG: All kinds of emotions can be contagious. That can shape the team’s culture and even affect performance.

Emotional contagion operates through what psychologists call ‘behavioral mimicry’, which is the human tendency to mimic the nonverbal and the facial expressions of the people around us, Sigal explains.

And the funny thing about emotional contagion is that people don’t realize it’s happening.

Other tips related to humility

  • There is such a thing as too much humility: “If you always give credit to others and consistently downplay your own strengths, people might start questioning your abilities.” One way to avoid this is by finding a balance between humility and confidence.
  • Don’t humblebrag: “There’s evidence that humblebragging causes people to like you less and see you as less competent.” In other words, don’t fake humility.
  • Keep people in your life who know you well (like childhood friends); people who can remind you to stay grounded whenever success gets to your head and makes you act out of character; to keep your ego in check.

Adam’s conclusion:

“I’ve always seen humility as a virtue we should display after success. You might think of it that way too, which is why people love to give advice on how to appear humble. But I’ve started thinking differently about humility. It’s something we should cultivate before success. Humility affects how close we come to our potential and how long we stay on top. In the best teams, humility isn’t a weakness, it’s a source of status and a sign of strength.” (Grant, 2018)

Questions to think about

  • Where does humility rank in your workplace priorities?
  • Does your work culture promote humility?
  • Would your coworkers say you are a humble person?
  • What is the composition of your teams at work?
  • Have you seen the effects of emotional contagion (good or bad) in your workplace?

From Adam:

  • “Who are the “no-stats all-stars” in your workplace? How do they elevate the team—and how can you make sure their contributions are recognized and valued?”
  • “Where have you seen the costs of having too many “A players”? How can you hold stars accountable for doing tasks that they might see as beneath them?”

Applications for business

How can you incorporate humility in the workplace?

  • Make humility a core part of your practices, roles and routines.
  • Personal accountability
    Make every member accountable to themselves and to one another.
  • Leaders reinforce humility by modeling it
    “When you see your boss admit fault instead of blaming others, you feel a little more comfortable owning up to your mistakes.”
  • Show your employees the bigger picture
Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

If your employees have a hard time understanding their role in the larger picture operation of your company, try exposing them to all of the different component/aspects of your business.

For example, if you are a salesperson, consider meeting and talking to the people who manufacture your product, or the developers who’ve programmed your application, or the people responsible for shipping your product. If you are a waiter, consider asking about the role of the sous-chefs in the restaurant, or seeking out the source of the food (local farmers, wholesalers, etc.), talking to the sommelier, etc.

Doing this is a good way to instill humility in your employees, as they get to understand that their individual contribution at work is just one part of a whole list of people that contribute to the final product (i.e. a successful business); people without whom none of their success could be achieved.


Grant, Adam. “The Problem with All-Stars”. Audio blog post. WorkLife with Adam Grant. TED, March 14th 2018. Itunes App.

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