Self-Deprecation

Self-deprecation is the act of mocking, undervaluing, or criticising yourself, usually used as humour and tension release.Self-deprecating leaders can be appealing on many levels. They appear modest, open about their inadequacies, humorous and empowering – or so we like to think.I know a number of leaders whose default is towards self-deprecation. It is a disarming technique to which they have become habituated – almost to the extent that like to get their self-criticism in first before anyone else gets a chance.

However, as with any default leadership behaviour it can slide from being an asset to being a disadvantage – particularly if overused.

The problem comes when such a leader undermines the very thing they are attempting to get across to other people. Statements such as, “I’m not good at detail so there might be lots of mistakes in here”, or “I fly on in front and need people to clean up after me”, or “I can’t really see the point of business plans but here’s one I’ve pulled together” (all of which I’ve heard different leaders say in the last 12 months).

Imagine you are in the audience of such a leader who casually throws in these self-deprecating comments as a way of lightening the event.

Rather than having the desired effect it sows a seed of doubt in the mind that wasn’t there otherwise – particularly if such comments become a pattern.

Self-deprecation can ultimately be disrespectful to one’s audience – quite the opposite the of the original intention. For if the leader doesn’t take herself or himself content seriously than how can she or he expect that from anyone else?

The real test for those of us who tend towards self deprecation is how would we feel if someone spoke in front of a large audience and repeated all the negative comments about us, that we freely make about ourselves?

Ian M Banks captured this in his novel, ‘Look to Windward’, when he wrote:

“Strange that people are happy to adopt epithets they would fight to the death to throw off had they been imposed.”So if we wouldn’t expect others to say such things about us then why should we permit ourselves to openly and repeatedly undermine ourselves?

At the very least every supposedly funny and self-deprecating comment punctures any notion of gravitas, reliability and sincerity we might hope to project.

Regardless of how humorous the intention the cumulative effect would certainly undermine other people’s confidence is as leaders.

As ever it’s a judgement call, used sparingly self deprecation can be asset; overplayed, it becomes an Achilles heel.