Too much of a good thing – The hidden dangers of being too modest

September 30, 2014

No one likes a show off, right? We can all think of people who constantly bang on about how brilliant they are and what they’ve achieved this month. People who make sure you know what their house is worth or tell you the detailed spec of their high end car and so on and so on. It grates and, frankly, it’s not very British. So it’s better to be modest, obviously. Well mostly. I want to highlight the hidden dangers of being too modest.

Now you’re probably thinking that I mean the risk of being overlooked. Modest people don’t sell themselves enough and miss out on promotion, while their brasher colleagues get ahead. Sure, that’s a danger. But you know about that already. It’s obvious. I’m thinking of something less immediately apparent – the impact of modesty on other people and, particularly, the impact of the modest manager.

The modest manager
160371796_40cbade865_zDespite their reticence, sometimes modest people do get promoted. I’ve been working a lot with engineers lately and I’ve met plenty of very modest, very senior managers. It would be ludicrous to suggest that all engineers are modest (and I’ve certainly met some who really aren’t) but engineering – and, perhaps, IT – seem to have more than their fair share of modest people. There seems to be a culture within these disciplines that says ‘The work speaks for itself, so you don’t need to’. And that’s where the problem starts.


Won’t believe the hype
Modest people can be incredibly intolerant of anyone who shows even the slightest sign of blowing their own trumpet. This presents particular problems when recruiting new staff (or, indeed, getting someone in to decorate your house or even buying a new car). Candidates come in eager to sell themselves; that’s why they’re there, right? But the modest manager can be put off or irritated by this. They may make the assumption that ‘empty vessels make most noise’ – according to this logic, the more someone brags, the less competent they are likely to be. In reality, of course, some really good people are quite comfortable talking about what they’ve accomplished. The modest manager may fail to spot a talented individual because, not only do they not believe the hype, they positively reject it.

Don’t let it go to your head
The second risk for modest managers is that they are often very uncomfortable with recognition. They 127165050_2ca947ed87_zhate being singled out for special attention or praise. These are the kind of people who would stay away from an awards ceremony if there was any chance at all that they might actually win something. And that’s fine for them. The danger is that they think their staff are – or should be – the same. So they may not give people sufficient recognition, praise or just thanks for a job well done. They don’t need it, so why would anyone else? And, because they’re often uncomfortable with appreciation, if they force themselves to do it, it may come across as awkward, stilted or insincere. If their staff are the type who want or need praise and recognition they can end up quite de-motivated. Sadly, the same can also be true of modest parents.

The meek won’t inherit the earth
Of course, modest managers can get around the problem by recruiting like-minded souls, forming a team who quietly get on with the job and don’t make a song and dance of it. But someone has to push the accomplishments of the team. Whether it’s selling the products and services the team produces or raising their profile within an organisation to ensure they get sufficient resources, the team has to have a voice – a voice that isn’t too modest.

I’m not advocating a world full of brash egotists, but don’t overplay your modesty. As with most strengths, you really can have too much of a good thing.

Photo credits

Peacock – Ken Douglas

Man – Susan Sermoneta

Woman – Avi Flamholz

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