‘You’re a failure. You’re worthless. Pathetic. A ten-year old could have done a better job. You don’t deserve to be where you are and everyone knows it.’
Not many modern managers would be proud of that outburst, but the sad truth is that we do it all the time. Only this isn’t the kind of bullying barrage that will lead to an uncomfortable date with the HR director (or, indeed, an employment tribunal). No one ever hears about it, because the victim is ourselves.
Self-criticism isn’t fashionable these days. Google it and you’ll see a stream of psychology articles telling you to stop being so hard on yourself. And why not? Undermining our self-worth is undoubtedly bad for our wellbeing, which ultimately is bad for everyone.
Of course, you can imagine what the cynics might say. This is just another example of our increasingly mollycoddling, cotton wool culture, an everyone-gets-a-medal mantra for losers. Hard though it is to admit it, they’d have a point.
If you spend even a modest amount of time around high-achievers, you’ll notice a relentless drive to self-improvement. ‘The best entrepreneurs I’ve met are always self-critical,’ said Sebastian Siemiatkowski, co-founder of Swedish fintech unicorn Klarna. ‘That’s part of what makes them great. They’re consistently asking if they did this right, could they have done better.’
So which is it? Are we being too hard on ourselves, or not hard enough? Or is it merely a case of choosing between happiness and success?
Don't be negative, stupid
‘Self-criticism does have a role in success,’ says occupational psychologist Amanda Potter. Her firm Zircon conducted research identifying the common ingredients of successful people in various walks of life, and found self-criticism particularly prominent in Olympians and other elite sports people.
‘They were single-minded and determined, they broke down every single element of their behaviour, analysing and evaluating their food, their sleep, their routine, in order to get the best out of themselves.’
This does not mean, however, that they were necessarily hard on themselves. Potter identified a positive side to it as well, in the form of self-belief. They might have messed up, but it doesn’t mean they stop believing they can achieve what they want to and it certainly doesn’t make them feel worthless. Without that belief, she says, self-criticism can indeed turn into self-destruction, leading to anxiety and even depression.
There’s clearly a balance to be found that turns self-criticism into self-improvement. If you refuse to take responsibility for your own success, blaming other people or your circumstances, you’ll never push yourself hard enough to get ahead. But if your failures eat away at you rather than spur you to improve, then that does far more harm than good.
To find this happy medium, Potter suggests limiting your self-criticism, and pairing negative feedback with positives.
‘You should reflect, then put a lid on it. These are the three things I could have done differently. Then also say these are three things I did really well. Every time you give yourself a bit of a beating, you should also remind yourself what you’re really good at.’
You may be your own harshest critic, but it doesn’t mean you have to be your own worst enemy. If you harness your self-critical urges, it can help you to become more successful without being miserable. So get (constructively) criticising.
What to do if an employee is too self-critical
Managing our own inner critic is important for our wellbeing and effectiveness, but leaders also have to be on the lookout for employees giving themselves a hard time.
‘The big thing is self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Most of the time we do things because we think it’s the right thing to do, so if you’ve got someone being too self-critical it’s because they want to improve,’ says Potter.
It’s important to help them improve with constructive feedback, but also to boost their self-belief. Help them figure out what they like doing and what they’re best at, then give them opportunities to use their strengths.
What to do if you’re employee isn’t self-critical enough
On the other end of the spectrum are those whose self-belief most certainly doesn’t need inflating. Some people, sadly, tend to overestimate their abilities and how they are perceived.
Bursting such people’s bubbles is likely to do more harm than good, says Potter. So while remembering to still give positive feedback, you need to find a more subtle way of getting them to see the areas to improve.
‘We [psychologists] always use questions. Ask what was the situation, how did you approach it, how did people respond, how did people feel, what was the result, what could you have done differently. By the end of the questions, they’ve given themselves the feedback.’
Image credit: Forest Runner/Flickr