Creating a sustainable, safe, secure, healthy, and productive world for all people is a priority for the engineering profession. Now imagine a world where your peers are open to new ideas, really listen to what you have to say and accept opposing viewpoints. These are all character traits associated with what is called intellectual humility. It actually differs from being humble.
While humility has to do with sincerity, honesty and unselfishness, intellectual humility is related to being open-minded and proportioning one’s beliefs to the evidence. Those who are intellectually humble believe strongly about certain subjects but recognize their limitations and are willing to be proven wrong by others.
Philosophers and psychologists who have studied intellectual humility—such as Dr. Justin Barrett, former director of the Thrive Center for Human Development—say it can be a very valuable trait in the workplace as well as in life generally. Barrett was part of a project focused on what it means to be intellectually humble and how it can be encouraged. Dr. Ian Church and Dr. Peter Samuelson were the lead researchers.
“Intellectual humility is, roughly speaking, the virtue of accurately tracking the intellectual or evidential quality of your beliefs,” according to Dr. Church, a visiting assistant professor at Hillsdale College and a principal investigator for a project at the University of Edinburgh on intellectual humility. For Church, that means that intellectual humility is not necessarily incompatible with serious intellectual conviction.
“If our belief does not enjoy much in the way of evidence or justification, then we would be intellectually arrogant if we were unwilling to revise or perhaps relinquish that belief in light of new evidence to the contrary,” he said. “If, however, we know we’re right about something, a willingness to revise or relinquish our beliefs might be more akin to being intellectually servile or gullible. Being open-minded about whether or not 2 + 3 = 5 hardly seems like a virtue.”
Tenelle Porter, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of California, Davis says when we are willing to expose ourselves to opposing viewpoints it can be beneficial to our long-term intellectual progress.
Researchers say those who are intellectually humble can learn from others even if they disagree with their perspectives. Not only are they more engaged in conversations, but disagreements tend to be more constructive. Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, is known for her work on the fixed mindset vs. the growth mindset.
“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb,” said Dweck during a 2012 interview with OneDublin.org.
“In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence,” Dweck continued. “They don’t necessarily think everyone is the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”
Take a minute and consider whether you possess the traits of someone who is intellectually humble. Then ask yourself these questions:
- Am I open to learning new things every day, even if it means changing what I believe?
- When others disagree with my opinion, do I feel insecure or that they are attacking me?
- If I feel strongly about something, does it occur to me that I could be wrong?
Next, take the time to really determine what it will require to become more comfortable acknowledging different opinions and accepting that you may be wrong.
Laszlo Bock, a Google VP, has been quoted as saying that without intellectual humility “you are unable to learn.” Employers value skills like creativity, innovation and being resourceful. They also value humility.
Here are some ways intellectual humility will help you become a better engineer:
By being more open-minded and listening to another person’s perspective, even if you aren’t in agreement, it affords the opportunity for better collaboration among coworkers.
When you are willing to learn new concepts from others, it can often lead to innovative ideas that can be implemented in your organization.
Having a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset” allows employees to become better educated, which can result in marvelous achievements both individually and in the workplace.
Sharing ideas in a positive way helps build trust and better communication. By being engaged and listening to others, conversations are more constructive and lead to a deeper perspective on things.
Breaks Down Silos
When coworkers with different viewpoints come together and share information, it can help break down silos and result in better output. It also encourages employees to work together as a team toward a common goal.
In a 2012 study by Ethan Kross and Igor Grossman, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the researchers found a connection between intellectual humility and wisdom. By listening to others and considering their viewpoint, we are able take the information that we hear and potentially be more productive and ensure our interactions are more meaningful. This all contributes to a more educated, higher-performing workplace where employees and employers can work together, listen to each other and achieve excellent results.
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