How Can I Create a Humble Team?

Three ways to build a culture around ideas and results, not egos.

As leaders, it’s our job to get results. To do that, we need to build teams where the best ideas can win and we can learn from what isn’t working.

That’s harder than it sounds. It’s uncomfortable – both for us and our team members – to take a cold, hard look at where we don’t have the answers or where we’ve missed the mark. Egos get bruised and defenses go up.

But it’s vital. Research from the University of Washington Foster School of Business shows that humble people tend to perform better both in individual and team settings. They are also more likely to be strong leaders.

So if we want to lead well, we need to build humble teams that are driven by results, not ego – and that starts with ourselves.

This has been on my mind a lot ever since Peyton Manning joined me on my podcast, How Leaders Lead. (Catch the whole episode here.)

Peyton is a humble leader who sees himself the way he is. Yes, he’s confident in his abilities – but he also isn’t afraid to learn from his mistakes and ask questions when he doesn’t know the answers.

This humble attitude served him well with his teammates in the NFL, and now it’s helping him draw out the best from the teams he’s building in his new business ventures.

If you want to develop humble team members who openly share and solve problems together, keep reading. I have three practical ways you can start doing that this week.

Be comfortable NOT knowing the answers.

We all know Peyton Manning as a legendary quarterback. But these days, he’s the owner of an entertainment company and a bourbon brand. He’s a long way from the passing routes and play calling he’s an expert at! And I just love what he had to say about this second chapter:

“I've asked more questions … about all these different ventures because I'm not an expert. I don't know the answers. Let me be around somebody that knows more than me and pick their brain and try to get smarter.”

If you don’t know the answer to a problem, it’s not the time to “fake it ‘til you make it.” No one expects you to have all the answers, and it’s okay to admit what you don’t know.

In fact, it will help your team.

When you ask questions, you show your team how much you need them. Nothing inspires people more.

Plus, you create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable and excited to share what they know. That’s going to give you a much better chance of actually solving problems and improving your business.

I faced this very challenge myself when I moved from marketing into operations at PepsiCo. Instead of comfortably working on creative and branding challenges, I had to jump into the unfamiliar world of bottling plants and production.

But I started talking to the people who understood the process. I learned a ton. My team saw how much I needed them and that I truly wanted the best ideas. And we had a lot of success together as a result.

Give (and receive) direct feedback.

Humble teams are willing to hear how they can improve. For leaders, that means two things: first, clearly giving feedback to your team; and second, being willing to receive feedback yourself.

When I think about leaders who understand the power of positive criticism, Ken Chenault comes to mind right away. He’s the former Chairman and CEO of American Express, and he joined me on my podcast not too long ago.

First, Ken isn’t afraid to tell it how it is. He will lay out his concerns and plainly tell people where they need to improve. Most importantly, he pairs that honest feedback with a plan, so his team members have a path forward.

But that feedback has to go both ways.

I love the story Ken told about himself as a young, driven leader. He was confronted by a mentor who helped him see his tendency to zone out when the ideas of others bored him. People even had a name for it: the “Ken Zone.” He was shocked and devastated to hear it.

But he took that feedback to heart and worked to change his habits. It took a few years, but eventually coworkers started commenting on what a good listener he was.

He called it “one of the most important interventions” in his life as a leader.  And it’s proof positive:

We can transform our careers and our teams if we’re willing to both give and receive constructive criticism.

Conduct after-action reviews

If you’re an NFL fan, you’ve probably watched or at least heard of the “Manningcast” of Monday Night Football. It’s an alternate live commentary of Monday night’s game hosted by Peyton and his brother Eli – and it’s been incredibly influential.

But here’s what you may not know. After every broadcast, Peyton and Eli debrief on what went wrong, what they did well, and what they could improve for next time.

These after-action reviews are a fantastic habit.

And they’re another example of how humble teams operate.

Humble teams are always willing to ask how they can improve, even when it means facing what’s not working or what they’ve done wrong.

I learned the power of this when visiting Walmart. They called it their “correction of errors” process. After any promotion, they would sit down and evaluate what worked, what didn’t work, and what they’d do next year to make that same promotion even better. That was a huge reason they got consistent growth year after year.

And the evidence bears this out: Researchers at The Group for Organizational Effectiveness found that teams that conduct debrief outperform other teams by 20%-25%.

It’s not easy, especially when a project hasn’t gone according to plan. But when you lead your team to learn together in a debrief, they’ll form stronger bonds, be more aligned, and get comfortable having their work evaluated.

Humble teams that love to learn don’t just happen on their own. It’s your job as a leader to create the environment where they can develop.

Without that humility, your team will miss ideas and opportunities. Plus, your business won’t be able to solve the kind of crucial problems you need to solve in order to win in the market.

But your intentional leadership will make all the difference. You’ll build a team that is curious, humble, and motivated to see the best ideas win!

October 18, 2022