No one likes to work with someone else who thinks they are smarter or better than everyone else (even if it’s true!). While “genius design” sounds cool (think, Steve Jobs) it can lead to one person (or group of people) demoralizing, devaluing, and demeaning others (think, Steve Jobs) all for their own goals or benefit.
Designers who believe they are better than others, end up not being good team players who no one would like to work with. This kills collaboration and can jeopardize your career and work projects.
Author’s note: I’ve worked at a few places where some designers thought they were better than others. There was always an aire of pretentiousness and judgement which caused others to be more competitive or fearful/doubtful. Psychological safety was an issue. To be 100% honest, I too have fallen into the arrogance trap and thought myself as “special” (we, as a human condition, are constantly judging and comparing ourselves to others). That being admitted, I don’t want readers to read this article without examining their own behaviors and attitudes. I recommend reading this article as it relates to you. Don’t let your mind wander and think about others – use the article to ponder your own progress. I believe, developing rock-solid humility and moving away from judgement takes time and maturity.
What is humility?
“True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” – CS Lewis
Humility is a modest view of one’s importance. Humble designers realize they are no more important than others – putting their pants on one leg at a time too. They also realize that they are no less important than others either.
Understanding this balance between valuing yourself and valuing others, I believe, is essential to collaborating well with others, whether you are a junior designer or chief designer officer.
The foundation: being secure with who you are (and are not)
Humility, fundamentally, to me, starts with accepting yourself as you are and as you are not.
When we don’t accept ourselves, we work hard at “looking good” — trying to make sure we are seen in a certain way.
A good example of this is when we join a new company, group, or start a new project. In this case, we have all felt a desire to be accepted and to “look good” amongst our peers. This involves wanting to present ourselves as exceptionally competent and capable. We may speak up more and try and present ourselves as “smart”. Or, we may begin to feel anxiety and be hard on ourselves. After all, it takes energy to try and present ourselves as perfect! Or, we get overly sensitive. Someone’s feedback to us feels like harsh criticism and we take it personal, when it is not.
In the end, our mind is all over the place and we are constantly trying to prove ourselves to get others to acknowledge and accept us.
Ironically, the three challenges I mentioned above, speaking up too much, feeling anxiety, and being sensitive – end up not helping us to get others approval. People can see through our issues (often I have found, better than we can). Our concern for “looking good”, repels others rather than attracts them. The possibility of collaboration is hurt.
This article will cover ways to accepting yourself more fully, so hang tight and read on.
From worry to arrogance and the paradox of successful jerks
The above feeling of “trying hard” and not accepting yourself fully, is a common experience for many people. Thankfully, I have found for myself, that these insecure feelings typically go away over time. Once you settle in a healthy (key word: healthy) organization (you get to know people and they get to know you), you begin to relax and feel secure in who you are.
However, for some people, this doesn’t happen. They end up perpetually feeling insecure and there is a constant underlying worry of not being accepted (or failing). There can arise a compulsion to be perfect and seen as perfect. As a result of striving to be perfect, we can become arrogant which works against humility and collaboration.
Author’s note: It’s confusing and seems paradoxical, but I have met arrogant people who have done very well in their careers. Their arrogance coupled with developed (or perceived) talents, give off a confidence that seem to help them in their careers. For a while I thought that it was a good idea to be a bit egoistical and arrogant too. But don’t be fooled. I believe, such progress comes at an immense cost. I believe that we cannot be arrogant and rude with others at work AND have a peaceful personal or home life. Thus it’s important to work on our own issues.
So how can we keep ourselves in check?
Ways to Cultivate Humility
People are amazing BS detectors. Within a few seconds people can tell who is truly humble, who is faking it, and who is quite frankly, arrogant. And like I mentioned, whoever is seen as arrogant, puts collaboration in jeopardy.
Thus, it’s important as designers to be aware of behaviors and attitudes that don’t demonstrate and cultivate humility.
No one is perfect and I have admitted earlier that I sometimes struggle with ensuring my ego is in check.
Earlier I had mentioned that humble designers realize they are no more important than others and also, at the same time, that they are no less important than others either. That they understand the balance between valuing yourself and valuing others.
The list below has some techniques that I feel can help you learn how to “value yourself” and also, at the same time, learn how to “value others”.
Learning to value yourself
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Trying so hard to be perfect is exhausting. A simple technique to cultivate humility is to admit that you don’t know, when you don’t know
. This also called being authentic.
To build authenticity muscles, we must call ourselves out. We must acknowledge when we’re puffing our chest and recognize we’re not fooling anyone.
When our need to be real outweighs are need to “appear cool” – you know you’ve made progress here.
Author’s story: On one project, my team lead was really good at admitting he didn’t know. What I found was, he was really good at doing that AND coming from a place of honesty and power. He would say (paraphrasing), “I’m not 100% sure how we’re going to approach this next part, but let me talk to so-and-so who’s really good at this and maybe might give us some ideas.” Along with his genuine personality, I felt like the team appreciated him even more when he could be vulnerable like this rather than claiming he knew all the answers.
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Ever watch tennis players who make a bad shot, yell at themselves? This is sadly how we sometimes treat ourselves we goof up at work or make a mistake.
Some people’s projects and work must be perfect or they fear judgement from others. For some, the fear of failing leads to serious control issues. If they are not succeeding at a project, they’ll feel less inside. They begin to fear others will perceive them as not perfect and lesser. “Self-enchantment” is when we want others to only see as perfect.
Stop being so hard on yourself.
We need to remind ourselves we’re human. “Mistakes” are learning lessons. Believe it or not, you’re allowed to make mistakes at work and that you are not required to have all the right answers. Try and remember that the next time you don’t say the right thing or have the right solution.
We are all working to be better versions of ourselves and must believe in ourselves. It’s a skill to simultaneously hold the view that we are not perfect. It allows for failure, it allows for personal and professional growth. A good mantra to try: “I am perfectly imperfect” or “I am a constant work-in-progress.”
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On one project, one of my teammates made me feel horrible about how I was contributing. This made me doubt myself and I spent time figuring out why I lost so much self confidence. I took Kain Ramsey’s program, called Warrior Mindset, which I highly recommend.
From that program I learned why I felt so terrible. I had a need to prove myself a success and I was heavily committed to defining myself by ‘what I did’. Since my identity was tied up by “what I did”, then “how well I did it” would determine if I was successful or not.
For example, if my design was “good” it was only known to me if others praised me. THEN I felt good. If my design was “bad”, it was only known to me if others didn’t like my output. THEN I felt bad. This essentially was an on-going evaluation and thus, emotional see-saw, because I defined myself by ‘what I did’. The only way I could know if what I did was good, was to evaluate “how well I did it” based on others opinions. I was getting really affected by others opinions as a result. Crazy right?
Nowadays, I try and define myself by if I have done the best I could to my ability or not. “How I am being” (within my control) defines who I am. I have to remind myself, I am hardworking, loving, collaborative, easy-going, imperfect, flexible, etc. etc. That’s what matters to me. ‘What I do” doesn’t define me anymore (or at least, it doesn’t very often, but I have to stay vigilant). I suggest checking out Kain Ramsey’s program or reflecting on the above to help you let go of identifying too much with your work.
Author’s story: On a project at work, while I was brainstorming with my team, I was really evaluating my contributions and defining myself by “what I did”. If others thought my idea was good, I felt good. If they thought my ideas were bad, I felt bad. I had to pause and recognize the familiar pattern. A good technique here I found was first being aware I was doing this and then second, stay quiet. Fight the need to prove yourself. It’s a subtle thing, but I found if I paused more, I could then start checking in with myself to see if my ideas were helpful to the team and users – not to me and my ego.
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One thing that kills collaboration and building healthy relationships, is judgement.
All judgements are evaluations (whether self judgement or judgment of others) and end up separating you from seeing others as human beings like yourself. In the moment we begin to believe “hey! I’m pretty amazing and wayyy better than others” or “that person is NOT great/nice/competent/helpful/friendly/smart/etc. etc.” that evaluation now separates us from others. Positive judgements about others also create problems sometimes, “hey that person is really amazing at what they do.” This may be true, but can now create a subconscious yardstick where you now are measuring everyone else up to some standard.
We communicate and perpetuate judgement in subtle (and not-so-subtle ways) and thus people can “sense” being judged almost intuitively (although they may not be able to articulate exactly why they are uncomfortable around others).
The moment we judge others, our micro-expressions can change (our face and body language gives away clues that we do not approve of someone else). Comments “I expected more from you” or “you’re better than this!”, can belittle people and signals we are judging others (although we may not even mean to offend).
I believe, without self-acceptance (discussed earlier), I believe, we can have troubles perceiving and appreciating others accurately. After all, if we judge ourselves and hold ourselves so highly (or not), we can easily fall into the trap of projecting that judgement onto others and then comparison or competition can start.
Author’s story: After getting into a conflict at work, my manager told me to try being curious rather than judging others. If someone says or does something that doesn’t settle well with you, instead of jumping to conclusions and judging them – try and be curious. This can open up dialogue and can allow you to be more flexible in your dealings with them. A good quote from the book Theory U, “But it is only in the suspension of judgment that we can open ourselves up to wonder. Wonder about noticing that there is a world beyond our patterns of downloading…Without the capacity for wonder, we will most likely remain stuck in the prison of our mental constructs.”
Learning to value others
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I do believe too many people take their work very seriously. And to some degree, work is serious. But I believe, work should not get stressful. It should be like playing a game of tennis – absorbing and focusing your energy for some purpose. The moment you let the game get to your head, you’re in for trouble.
We can often forget that work is one part of life and as a result end up being so serious and stressed. We can unintentionally hurt others by being mean or not giving them the proper respect as fellow human beings.
Thus, I believe it’s very healthy to be able to smile and laugh at work. Collaboration can’t occur when the team doesn’t feel safe. Making others laugh relieves their stress and allows them to relax too.
Author’s note: On one project, I saw a senior leader and a product manager get so heated up that the senior leader barged out of the room slamming the door behind her! A few months later the product manager was “let go” from his position. Some people thrive in hostile political environments, thinking that’s the “norm”. I feel, for myself, for my health and wellbeing, I don’t think this is “part of the job” and how people typically behave. I would like to bring less stress to myself and others around me. Learn how to make others laugh.
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Another valuable suggestion for demonstrating humility, is to give eye contact equally. This is a very subtle thing, but as human beings we are very aware if we are not being addressed in a group of people. Eye contact, and lack of it, I believe is one thing that demonstrates if we are paying attention to someone or not.
Although you probably don’t mean it, lack of eye contact can signal that you may not value others. Often, the most senior person receives the bulk of eye contact since others are often looking for their approval. The key I feel, is to be aware if you are doing that and then stop doing that. By learning to give eye contact evenly, we show respect to everyone in the group regardless of their expertise or rank.
Author’s note: A really good senior leader I know does a great job of giving eye contact evenly. He goes even a step beyond that and often says, “I want to hear from folks on the phone” or “We’ve been talking for a while, I wanted to hear if anyone else in the group wants to chime in with thoughts about this.” Doing this, he wins a lot of friends very easily. He is careful and doesn’t abuse his rank thus increasing the team’s feeling of inclusivity and collaboration.
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We live in a time where we think being the loudest person in the room is a celebrated virtue. In fact, it can work quite the opposite.
Oftentimes, I have had to pause and stop myself from saying the first thing that wants to come out of my mouth. I am learning how and when to speak and contribute. When I speak too much, I find I am not engaging others or I am putting too much attention on my ideas.
Yes, it’s good to engage with others. But be careful you understand why you are doing that. If it’s to get others attention and to be the smartest person in the room, ultimately this will subtly hurt your relationships. Competitiveness can happen or people can be annoyed you are hogging the stage.
What I find works well is focused listening. I find that when I am engaged the most in a conversation, I am absorbed in my listening. It’s more about others rather than me and what I have to say. I am hearing what each person is saying and what they are implying. This requires I follow the conversation and not get distracted. When you can give this level of presence with your listening, what you contribute when you do contribute, is more impactful and helpful to others. People can tell you are listening attentively and your words will now carry more weight and flow in the conversation.
Author’s story: A relative of mine doesn’t listen. I know it. I’ll share something and that relative nods their head, sometimes looks around, seems aloof. They are often just waiting for their turn to speak, catching the bare minimum of what I have to say in order for the conversation to flow. Over time I have picked up on this and it has left me feeling the relative doesn’t care much about what I have to say. It’s taught me the value of listening.
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When working with others, we can easily get carried away. When the time comes to share a great idea, we can end up not giving the right credit to the right people.
When I have done this in the past (or seen others do this), I’ve seen it can end up destroying trust. Others can feel that you are out only for yourself and may no longer want to collaborate as much.
When we can put ourselves aside and in a balanced way, give the right amount of credit to others (not more or less), it’s actually a bigger stepping stone to an ideal which is to cultivate a genuine wish for the success of others. If we believe work is about competition, that there isn’t enough to go around, then yes, we can end up stealing credit (whether intentional or not). So when we practice generosity, we learn to shift to more of an abundance mindset. Genuine leaders do this – they acknowledge their teams efforts often.
A good rule of thumb is the golden rule, “treat others as you’d like be treated.” At first, make sure you go out of your way to let others know if someone else contributed to your project or idea. Of course, don’t overdo it either. Not every contribution has to be noted. Nor do you have to live in fear that others will be slighted if you don’t mention them. Refer back to the golden rule if you find yourself unsure of what to do.
Author’s story: I was once on a project where the design team was brought in to help the product management team develop a new product. We worked with them for weeks up until the product was built and deployed. When there was department level share out in front of hundreds of people, the product managers on the team shared the work. However, they failed to mention the design team’s contribution! Needless to say, it soured our design team’s relationship with the product management team.
Another project I was on, I was redesigning a massive website. This website was highly visible at the company. The IT manager in charge felt he deserved most of the credit for the website work and began isolating himself and not collaborating anymore. He felt I was stealing credit and making him look bad. That being said, I didn’t believe so. I had worked politely, I had hustled hard with my team of designers to come up with concepts which we had got buy-in from multiple stakeholders. It’s a good example of not having to give undue credit. Some people may exaggerate their contribution or try and take over your contribution. Jealousy can even happen. Keep calm, carry on.
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Every team goes through a few stages until people truly trust each other. In the early stages of a relationship, people are feeling out each other’s personalities. Over time, as projects continue, each of us handles situations differently. When we end up offending someone (or being offended), conflict can happen. This conflict can be subtle (like avoiding eye contact or sensing someone is uncomfortable) or it can be not-so-subtle (like people being rude or cutting you off).
Overall, though uncomfortable, I feel like some conflict can teach us how others would like to be treated. If we’re smart, we take note of what people liked or didn’t, and recalibrate our behavior.
Sometimes we mess up. That’s ok, we’re human. When we offend others, I find it’s helpful to pull the person aside privately and discuss. Not everything needs to be called out, but it’s better to side on caution if you have felt you did offend someone (or someone offended you).
Author’s note: I struggle with this sometimes and have to calibrate. If I say something and notice someone else is now acting out of character, then I like to take note of my behavior or how I am coming across. My goal is to enable collaboration, not hurt it. I will analyze how I said something and work towards improving it next time. During the end of projects, I like to ask for balanced feedback, which may surface blindspots as well.
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Over time I am improving my usage of “language softeners.” These are etiquette words or phrases that help us communicate openly (and thus less arrogantly or directly).
For example, instead of saying “this is the direction we need to go” it’s sometimes better to say “one direction we may go.” This allows for flowing dialogue and inclusivity. Another benefit is that it also doesn’t make you look foolish if your idea was flat out wrong.
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Hate to break it to you but projects are not meant for us to be rockstars (although we all feel great when we are contributing of course). Projects are actually meant to help us grow. And as we all know, any growth must requires discomfort.
Learn to be uncomfortable. Often, people don’t want to make us feel bad, so only call out what we’re doing well. Or, we don’t want to know the truth. Real growth, however, comes from asking for the good AND the bad.
Learn to enthusiastically and proactively ask to receive balanced feedback. Earnestly ask for other’s opinions about what you’re doing well and what you can improve on.
Continuously doing this (during or after projects) is helpful in creating a muscle to be proactive about feedback.
Author’s note: Not all feedback is equal. Be careful who you ask for feedback. Make sure that person is trusted and respectable. If the person giving feedback is a joker, I tend to be careful about paying too much attention to it. If the person is overly mean (providing only negative feedback), this also doesn’t settle well with me either and I begin to evaluate the credibility of the feedback rather than hear the feedback. Over time, however, I am learning how to stomach feedback more and not take it too personally. When I find feedback is done well, it’s balanced. It tells me things I can do to grow and encourages me. Whenever I’ve received feedback which made me doubt myself, paralyzed me or made me resentful – I think these are signs I either took the feedback too personally, which means I need some time to process it. Or it could mean the person giving the feedback wasn’t kind and balanced when giving the feedback. When you don’t agree to the feedback, in these cases, you need to be like the dude and say to yourself “Well, that’s just your opinion man” and learn to shrug it off.