Women, It’s Time To Be Less Humble

Posted: September 14, 2011

Prithviraj, the Malayalam film actor has often been criticized for being too arrogant. I hear stories about “nice” managers who are humble inspite of their holding high positions in the company. For a long time, humility was a quality that I cherished and tried to inculcate. I would ensure that every email of mine, which poses an opinion, would also include a disclaimer – that I am not the all knowing person in this field. Now, I don’t. Even when I am tempted to. Even when, sometimes that is the truth.

Because, I think humility and performance don’t necessarily run in parallel.

Performance is not just about what you say on your appraisal  day. It’s about your performance, right? Your performance, that determines your growth, learning, contribution and effectiveness in an organization. Let me also hasten to add that I am not tolerant of people who crib about workplaces and continue to stay there. We always have a choice – either to solve it or to move out or to decide that we would not let the situation affect us. I say this here, because I have often heard people complain about the “biased” views of their managers – that the less deserving person gets the cake. I think, in most cases, this understanding is flawed.

One of the most often heard complaint in a large organization is that the “presenter” gets the promotion. That the one who works hard is not recognized as much as the one who presents the idea to the boss. Undermining that vital piece of communication to just another “presentation” shows a lack of understanding of how humans work. The presentation where a person tells his boss, “I will do this and this and this. This is how I will do it. These are the resources I need to do it like this” is where TRUST is built.

 And this, is where I think, humility might NOT help.

Your boss/manager/leader should be able to trust you. Being humble would mean, undermining your capacities leading to a commitment of a much smaller outcome than is possible. You might even quote Narayana Murthy and say, “Underpromise and Over deliver”.  Hmm.. Really? You should be able to develop credibility for your capabilities. No one else knows about your experiences, capacities and plans. If you don’t say it where it matters, it dies – right there.

No one else knows about your experiences, capacities and plans. If you don’t say it where it matters, it dies – right there.

The unintended consequence of being humble is that, you always set your bar low. If you are someone who does not care for promotions and increments, but are someone who cares for a good learning experience, you must NOT be humble. There is no greater learning curve than a challenge beyond your expectations. Of course, all the other support mechanisms should be in place – buy in from your manager, a good team, availability of resources etc. In the pretext of being humble, most of us refrain from committing to a challenging outcome. If we had to convince someone that this challenging outcome was possible, it would also mean that every person in the team, works to their full potential – which means, you really commit to what you think your true potential is. And you cannot be humble while doing that.

I get reminded of my “humility” phase whenever I see female members write to a group. They are as  intelligent and smart as many others in the group. And yet, every opinion email is accompanied with an apology for the opinion. I remember drafting mails, and then consciously removing  my “humility” sentences. I started doing this when I realized that many men were constantly “selling” their qualities wherever possible.

I started making a note of their “sale points” and believe me, it was hilarious. You must try it some time. They do that, even when congratulating another. “Congratulations Mr XYZ, you did this. I remember doing it in 19XX”. When they lose their temper, that is their moment for self glorification – “Have you done X Y  Z? I have even done A B C. Moreover, I have read R S T. Don’t play with me. I was one of the first persons to ……”

You could ask me, why I need to bring in gender in this scenario? Don’t women do it as well? I wish they do it. I wish, they do more of it!

But the fact is, women don’t do it enough. A McKinsey study named Women Matter says “The interviews conducted show, among other things, that one of keys to success lies in the ability to promote oneself and to be assertive about one’s performance and ambitions. Women, it appears, tend to minimize their own contribution as a survey of MBA students suggests: 70% of female respondents rate their own performance as equivalent to that of their co-workers while 70% of the male respondents rate themselves higher than their co-workers.” Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) also says it.

Women, it appears, tend to minimize their own contribution as a survey of MBA students suggests: 70% of female respondents rate their own performance as equivalent to that of their co-workers while 70% of the male respondents rate themselves higher than their co-workers..

Essentially, I think women tend to be more humble, either because  they undermine their own skills and capacities or because humility is over rated. Even when I make fun of men selling their brains and brawn in public, I have to admit that, while doing so, they contribute heavily to the big picture. You may get tired of the self-adulation but it is their reward for their commitment to an opinion and an outcome. As much as I hate to say it, they have earned it.

Gals, its time for us to be a little less humble. It is hurting us. Although,  you may be a little overwhelmed at the response that a not so humble Ranjini gets in Kerala, it is time for us to shed the garb, and take that chance. After all, its our life.

Prithviraj continues to make movies and no one will remember the “nice” forgettable heroine, he acted with.

 PS: Do we need to turn into boys, you could ask. Maybe that’s for another post 🙂

Preethi is currently pursuing her Graduate Studies in Sociology in Purdue University in the US.

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  1. Really strong point, Preethi! Females are always programmed to put themselves one step or several steps down, right from childhood. It can be pretty subtle too, like raised eyebrows and dismissal when we speak up a little too assertively, or blow our trumpets, the ones we’re not supposed to be holding at all!

  2. Excellent article, Preethi – you hit the nail on the head. Took me years in my career to rise above the “humility conditioning” and say – I deserve more !

  3. Very True Preethi.. We girls are brought up this way, so as to be humble & polite, though it affects our progress many time.

    I think adopting some habits form boys will be a great idea.. 🙂

  4. True, you need to speak out in order to be heard. But women have been taught to undermine their capabilities and they need to believe in themselves before others begin to do so. How many women have refused promotions to pamper their husband’s ego? One need not brag or boasy but we need to lay claim to credit that is our due instead of behaving as if it was somehow wrong to have done well.
    Well written. Made me think.

  5. MJ (on the wrong side of gender on this site) -

    Hello Preethi,
    I have a different point of view.

    Humility is a virtue and it takes a lot to develop it. The truly great people are great because they are humble. Whom would you rather take as your role model Vijay Mallya or NRN (I know you expected this). Again among actors Prathviraj could be a flash in the pan, but look at Rajnikanth. What will Prathviraj be doing when he is a grandfather. Examples are many Tendulakar etc……..

    Do not confuse humility with lack of confidence. Humility means that I don’t accept that I am the reason for my success. Even Warren Buffet talks about ovarian lottery. Humility according to means putting your capabilities and actions in perspective of the capabilities and actions of a team. I will never work wholeheartedly for a proud manager and thus a proud manager or team mate jeopardizes her or his own future success.

    Humility might have short term setbacks, but again think of career with a 30 year horizon.

    MJ (on the wrong side of gender on this site and pretty much on the wrong side of all your arguements. Not intentionnaly though, I enjoy a good debate.)

  6. rpreethikrishnan -


    🙂 I think, this site is open to all genders and therefore there is no wrong side 🙂 . And about the arguments. I do get your point. When I say dont be humble, I of course dont mean that one has to go to the other end of being obnoxiously loud about one’s capabilities and in terms of putting others down. But I am not sure, if it works well to say, that “I don’t accept that I am the reason for my success.” Especially at the beginning stages of your career, when your credibility is not yet built. As I said in this post, its about building trust in people who are thinking of investing in you. They would need to know that you are capable and that you are successful not because of a stroke of luck but rather because of your capacities. I once read somewhere about the oriental style of management versus the american style where the oriental was a lot of “we” while the american was a lot of “i”. It might seem that I am advocating the “i” over the “we”. I agree to your point that the “we” aspect need not be completely, forgotten, but then, sometimes in India, personal accountability is compromised so much in the name of team work. Hence the need for saying what “i” can contribute and therefore being accountable for it.

    Well, also, I dont know if NRN is humble and Mallya is not. If you are talking about the million articles about NRN’s and his families’ simple living, I dont know. I really don’t buy into that. It was quite a brilliant brand building strategy that infosys adopted to buy into the imagination of the “hard working” middle class. Also, personally, I dont have a problem with Mallya. I dont see him any less competent to NRN.

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  9. When I declared who I was, what I was capable of and what had I done to prove it, many people (birth family, work colleagues) either invalidated it or said I was arrogant. This included both men and women. I have also seen a string of hyper-inflated individuals (both men and women) who claimed their skills as extra-ordinary when they were just competent. I am guessing they did not understand the word “extra-ordinary”. However, being competent requires good deal of work as well and I am not undermining that. All these experiences were based in the West. In the Indian context, I see both men and women who over-rate their achievements but my experience is limited to immediate relatives at the moment. An interesting perspective though as I find both men and women, both in India and the West sometimes have a hyper- inflated view of themselves but I might agree that I am yet to meet men who underplay their competencies. Maybe they do exist and I just haven’t met them?? Or is this just plain conjecture? I do not know.

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