Why You Should Embrace Ontological Humility at Work

Our leadership group in Ann Arbor has been reading Conscious Business, a fascinating book by Fred Kofman. I’ve found it to be part traditional business fare, part self-help, and part meditation on the nature of truth.

One chapter in the book — Ontological Humility — stood out to me as particularly helpful in its framing of how the world works.

What Is Ontological Humility?

Ontology is the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being, or what is real. “Ontological humility” is the idea that none of us perceives reality as it truly is (aside from some mathematical concepts). We interpret signals that come into our minds, and our interpretations of those signals is influenced by our own history, perspectives, current state, etc. Two people can have completely different interpretations of the same issue. As the adage says:

We do not see things as they are; we see them as we are.

The “humility” part of ontological humility suggests that we should accept that we don’t see the one true reality, and neither does anyone else.

Controllers vs. Learners

Kofman draws a comparison between those who are “Controllers” and those who are “Learners.” Learners believe they see things as they appear to them, and their view is only part of a larger picture. Controllers claim to know how things are, how they ought to be, and what needs to be done. Learners exhibit ontological humility. Controllers do not.

Learners at Work

The most effective and trustworthy people I’ve worked with are learners with very small egos. A sure sign of trustworthiness is a willingness to honestly say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” Learners are comfortable admitting when they don’t know something.

This skill is especially useful in consulting. As a consultant, we may feel pressure to know all the answers. But a consultant who claims to have all the answers is actually providing a combination of answers and bull. Wise clients understand that.

Because learners accept they don’t have all the answers, they live life with a growth mindset. They come to discover that the more they learn, the more they understand they don’t know. Because they’re always driven to learn, their understanding grows, and they also grow as people. Life-long learners tend to be very high-character individuals.

Controllers at Work

A controller’s attitude can create a lot of problems for teams, organizations, and themselves.

  • Controllers can become blinded by their own certainty of what’s right. A “pure” controller in a leadership position will bring a lot of risk to a team or organization. They lack the willingness to consider perspectives that differ from their own.
  • Controllers don’t learn as well. Their development may have stalled because of ontological arrogance. Their lack of personal development is a lost opportunity for the team as a whole.
  • Controllers can be hard to work with because they stake their self-esteem on being right. Everyone is having a discussion about a problem to be solved, but the Controller sees any disagreement as an attack on their identity — an existential threat that’s more important than the original problem. This creates a very frustrating and toxic situation.

How to Practice Ontological Humility

Kofman says that living with ontological humility means you recognize and validate other people’s mental models. The best time to practice ontological humility is when problems arise, especially when we are confronted with problems that could be our fault.

Kofman suggests a mutual learning model for approaching problems.

Three Assumptions

  • My own rationality is limited. I understand the world through my own limited perspective, which doesn’t describe the whole truth of things.
  • Other perspectives are complementary. Other people see things from their own perspectives, and together we can get a better picture of what’s going on.
  • Errors are learning opportunities.

Five Strategies

  • Define goals and strategies consensually; the more inclusion, the more buy-in.
  • Win together. Implementation requires collaboration and flexibility.
  • Share your views and listen to others. (I always find it better to ask others their opinion first.)
  • Maximize internal commitment through free and informed choices. Provide maximal information and minimal coercion. Transparency is a powerful tool.
  • Accept feelings as valid. These feelings are the other person’s truth, even if you can’t understand them. Accepting feelings as valid does not mean you agree with all conclusions drawn from those feelings.

I have found the above strategies useful, especially when unexpected issues are brought to me as a manager. The most reliable approach I’ve found is to start listening and work from there. Gathering other perspectives naturally leads to consensual goals and teamwork.

Ontological humility is one of many helpful concepts that Kofman writes about in Conscious Business. If you’ve also been helped by this book, I’d love to hear about it.