When Self Deprecation is a Bad Idea

Some of the response to Ruby Tandoh, Great British Bake Off finalist, is instructive for any woman in a public role – and that means any woman in a position of responsibility. Ruby’s tears and constant apologising provoked accusations of being self centred, flirtatious, manipulative. Fortunately Ruby herself made a magnificent response to the moaners in The Guardian newspaper on October 22 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/22/great-british-bake-off-ruby-dandoh

But in general we women are too hooked on the idea of putting ourselves down. Doing anything that could be interpreted as boastful creates horror. It reminds us of adults whose scorn was expressed in phrases like ‘Who’d be interested in what you’ve got to say?

One of my coaching clients embodied the dangers of this behavioural habit. P had grown up in a family with an angry, alcoholic mother, herself the product of an abusive home. P was frequently disciplined with hard slaps, deprived of food for ‘misbehaviour’ and punished with silence – her mother once went four weeks without speaking to her. P learnt to mollify this terrifying figure by apologising in advance for anything and everything, regardless of whether she was guilty of any wrongdoing. Although her mother was long dead, P had carried the habit of preceding most conversations with the word ‘sorry’. Her body language conveyed constant appeasement, head cocked on one side, looking up under her eyelashes, smiling when nothing amusing was happening, crying easily. P had notable warmth, humour and outstanding intellectual gifts. She got a first class Oxbridge degree, a PhD and then early promotion to a senior management role, which was when her real problems started. P could not ask straightforwardly for what she wanted. She could not express an opinion without apologising for it in advance. More pushy colleagues got promoted or claimed credit for work she had done. Direct reports did not always understand her feedback when it was wrapped up in so many ifs and buts. Colleagues thought her easy tears indicated emotional instability.

Like many such women, P was deeply hurt when she understood how her behaviour affected others. She thought that self deprecation meant she was showing a becoming modesty and also expressed her belief in equality. She felt that tears indicated a willingness to be authentic. She believed she was being collaborative by praising others when in fact she had done the major part of the work. She thought she was showing respect to seniors when she apologised for ‘wasting’ their time.

In fact P was driving people crazy. People who loved and admired her were exasperated. People who were envious of her gifts thought her manipulative and insincere.

Others cannot read our motivation. This is why we have to help them understand it. But first we have to understand how our own behaviour affects them.

Underneath her addiction to apologising, P was tough not fragile. She wanted to get a grip on her career and that meant getting more of what she wanted, which included more respect. She also dreaded that in the process of learning how to stop her habit of self deprecation, she might turn herself into a ‘bully broad’ of whom there were quite a few in her organization. At first I just asked her to monitor the ‘S’ word and count how many times a day she actually said it – or was tempted to. The answer was dozens – if not hundreds on a bad day. I then asked P to conduct some DIY 360 feedback where she interviewed ten people about her own strengths and weaknesses. It was from this point on that P’s life began to change.

In our coaching sessions P explored how to be more assertive, learning that saying no would not necessarily devastate the person who had been refused. She learnt to give feedback straightforwardly. Even more importantly, she learnt that defences that had been useful in childhood may actually get in the way as an adult. These habits are not easily or quickly dismantled, but adult motivation is a wonderful thing and coaching is one excellent way to accelerate the process of harnessing it.