In my practice, I often coach “high potential” executives, so named because they’re part of a select pool of talent from which a company’s future leaders will be chosen. As is typical in these coaching relationships, one of my key roles is to listen deeply.  I hear a lot of lies.

Recently, one mid-level manager was discussing with me her professional experiences and some of her anxieties about performing effectively at the next level.  “I’ve been an implementer all my life,” she asserted, “and now I’m being asked to come up with ideas. But that’s not me! When I’m in those meetings where everyone is suggesting ideas, I draw a blank. My tiny little brain just does not work that way.”

I’d been coaching her for several months and this was not the first time I heard her use the phrase, “my tiny little brain,” but I had not previously said anything. As our conversation continued I noticed that she repeated the same expression two more times. Finally, I asked, “Do you really think your brain is so tiny?”

“What?” she replied, surprised at the question. “Oh, that. No, that’s just an expression.  I don’t mean anything by it,” she offered.  “Of course not.”

Self-deprecating humor can be serious

The truth was, this self-deprecating remark did mean something to those who heard it, and more importantly, it meant something to her. She had been berating herself about her inadequacy to have original ideas during team meetings. The fact was that she did have ideas, but she did not readily put them forward.

She told me a story about how a team she was on rallied around someone else’s idea and put it into action. She had reservations about the idea, but did not say anything. It turned out that the idea failed for exactly the reasons she had predicted. But she had not shared her thoughts. Rather, she had self-edited and self-critiqued her concerns out of existence.

This potential leader held a belief about herself that she was not smart, and she “proved” it by stifling her own ideas. In our conversation, she said that in meetings she often jotted down others’ ideas and would think, “What a great idea.” Then, she’d jot down ways to put the idea into action. What were the steps? Who needed to be involved? What would it cost? When could it happen? What else could we do? She didn’t realize that she was having high quality ideas that built on someone else’s original concept. But until she was confronted with her ‘lie’ she was stuck in a self-limiting identity that defined her exclusively as an ‘implementer.’

Reframing the limiting belief is key

My intervention helped her reframe her self-judgment that she was “inadequate” at idea creation.   She quit thinking of herself as incapable of sourcing ideas and began to value her own ability to recognize a good idea and how to bring it to fruition. As important, she stopped censoring her own ideas and started sharing with the group both her excitement and also her concerns about ideas being discussed. And, she stopped saying “my tiny little brain.”  Her self-deprecating habit had not been helpful and it was certainly not true. She stopped lying to herself.

Self-doubt is unfortunately part of being human

We all hold beliefs about ourselves. Some are true, some are not.  Many have been there a very long time.  As human beings, we all shoulder some burden of self-doubt:  the fear that we’re imposters, not good enough, smart enough, worthy of love, or perhaps, that we have a tinier brain than everyone else.    Even the best leaders among us have minds that generate irrational fears of inadequacy.  Effective leaders have the discipline to listen to their internal critic, but then provide balance with a realistic appraisal of their strengths and shortcomings.

Self-deprecation is not always bad.  When used intentionally by confident leaders it can help remove barriers and build trust.  Overuse, however, is visible to others in ways the speaker can’t imagine. And, it is often an indicator that we need to explore a blind spot that is holding us back and more likely, to unleash a hidden strength.

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