The Role of Organizational Humility in Workplace Design

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T. Patrick Donnelly
T. Patrick Donnelly
Patrick Donnelly is a registered architect and an owner of BHDP Architecture, a Midwest-based design firm specializing in architecture, interior design, planning and project management. Patrick is Vice President of Strategic Services at BHDP which serves Fortune 500 clients throughout the U.S. such as The Procter & Gamble Co., A Major Financial Services Provider, Humana Inc., Met Life, Inc. and General Dynamics Corporation. Patrick has extensive experience in all phases of the design process including strategic planning, programming, project management, marketing and pre-design services. He directs BHDP’s workplace strategy services and research and is currently integrating process tools to link strategic planning and organizational development to the design of the work environment.

The meek may inherit the earth, but do they ever make it to the corner office? That’s the question that is at the back of everyone’s mind when it comes to conversations about organizational humility. No one wants to work for leaders who are perceived as weak or meek, but that’s not what organizational humility is. On the contrary, organizational humility represents a principle-centered approach to leadership exemplified by a willingness to listen, collaborate and even admit mistakes. It’s a quality that can help companies navigate the twists and turns of difficult business environments, building trust among associates and leaders. What’s more, it has special relevance for the people who plan and design the environments that enrich the quality of our experience at work.

Not timid, but teachable

Organizational humility differs somewhat from personal humility. The emphasis is not on a mild or submissive demeanor, but rather on an ability to learn and be open to new ideas.

Management expert Peter Drucker is credited with saying that in business, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In a culture marked by humility, managers value their people and excel at listening. In this context, humility conveys confidence and enables innovation as leaders seek and accept input from others.

When organizational humility emanates from top leaders, it has the potential to permeate the organization. The attitude is, “I know a lot, but I don’t know everything. I have a point of view, but it’s not the only point of view… what’s yours?”

The presence (or absence) of humility gets to the essence of an organization. Leadership characterized by swaggering narcissism will create a company that’s very different from one in which people and their ideas are truly valued. As in the quote attributed to Harry Truman, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Examples of humility in leadership

Leaders as disparate as Abraham Lincoln and Herb Kelleher offer good examples of effective organizational humility. Think of Lincoln’s approach as detailed in the Doris Kearns Goodwin book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” She describes him as a fiercely ambitious politician who nevertheless was shrewd enough – and confident enough – to include men with conflicting views in his Cabinet.

Writes Goodwin: “Every member of this administration was better known, better educated and more experienced in public life than Lincoln.” But with his firm but inclusive leadership, he marshaled their talents and won their loyalty.

Kelleher, the co-founder and chairman emeritus of Southwest Airlines, endeared himself to employees and the public as he spent time in humble jobs including loading baggage. He told Fortune magazine in January 2013, “Power should be reserved for weightlifting and boats, and leadership really involves responsibility.”

Even the TV program “Undercover Boss” shows the potential of leaders with the strength to be humble. Although it sometimes portrays a CEO spotting slackers in the ranks, it also humanizes these leaders, giving them key insights into their organization as they take on menial jobs alongside employees they wouldn’t encounter in the boardroom or at the country club.

The impact of humility

As business moves beyond knowledge work and into what author Dan Pink calls the Conceptual Era, organizational humility can play a key role in the crucial problem of engagement.

“Attracting and retaining talent still tops the priorities for corporate leaders,” says Rex Miller, senior partner at TAG Consulting, who speaks on the training of “change leaders.”

When leaders lack humility, he says, they widen the gap that often insulates them from the impact of their own decisions. Sure, disconnected employees may do what they’re told – all the while looking for another job.

One aspect of organizational humility that raises eyebrows is the willingness to admit mistakes. Except for delivering the obligatory apology after being caught red-handed, does it really pay to admit you were wrong? It can. After all, everything from riding a bike to designing a building will involve some mistakes. That’s how people experiment, learn, innovate and refine new ideas.

Furthermore, humility about mistakes – when it is sincere – can generate goodwill and respect. “

I messed up. I owe everyone an apology,” Netflix co-founder and chief executive Reed Hastings said in the wake of an announced service change that proved to be a debacle for the company.

Not all of its disgruntled subscribers were mollified. But the company regrouped and recovered, eventually topping its all-time-high earnings.

Humility and the design of the work environment

In design, the crucial place for humility is not in the product, but in the process. It’s important for designers to suspend judgment in order to pay attention to what clients are saying—and not saying. Understand the culture and climate of the organization. Discover what is needed to drive success of their business.

Effective workplace design reflects the nature of a client company or organization – how people interact, what their goals are, how they communicate. To do this well, it is important  to be open to ideas, observe and listen to people, to get to the heart of the issues with an attitude that fosters organizational humility.

When renowned architect Frank Gehry teamed with our firm to create the  Albert H. Vontz Center for Molecular studies at the University of Cincinnati, he expressed an attitude we share that was as stunning as the building: “I like to think that when people come here and start working, they’ll realize that someone loved them. They’ll feel it, and they’ll understand that care was taken and people thought about how it feels to be in a building.”

Far from indicating meekness or weakness, organizational humility requires confidence and courage. It is the backbone of successful organizations and enables great design.

Think of the attitude of a plane landing – that is, its angle and position as it approaches the runway. Humility also is an attitude, an angle of approach. It can create trust and the kind of collaboration that leads to innovation and real achievement, allowing for a smooth, successful landing even in times of turbulence.

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