Big Yourself Up

Three businesswomen on how they learned to stop being self-deprecating at work

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Moya Crockett
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Big Yourself Up is a regular column exploring the ways women can increase their professional visibility. Here, three leading businesswomen share how they learned to resist the urge to put themselves down in the workplace. 

“Oh, a monkey could have done it.” “This is probably a really stupid idea, but…” “Thank god I’ve got such a great team around me – I’m a total shambles at the moment!”

If this is how you talk about yourself at work, it’s time to reconsider. Self-deprecation is something many women do without even realising, and used sparingly, it can be delicious: taking the mickey out of yourself is, after all, an essential component of the great British sense of humour. But there’s a major difference between the odd well-timed joke at your own expense and a constant drip, drip, drip of self-directed negativity. Deployed in the pub, the former can be hilarious; used in the office, the latter risks convincing others you’re not up to the job.

The temptation to self-deprecate is real and understandable. Research suggests that women who self-promote and behave assertively are more likely to be seen as pushy or arrogant than men displaying exactly the same behaviour – and the world is notoriously unforgiving of conceited women. (Conceited men, of course, are able to ascend to the most powerful office on the planet.)

With this as a backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that so many women, wary of being perceived as big-headed, try instead to make themselves smaller. Pulling off that major project was no big deal; that hugely successful event was almost a total disaster; we might look like we know what we’re doing, but really, it’s a miracle we even manage to put our shoes on properly in the morning!

This is where self-deprecation can easily get tangled up with impostor syndrome. If you feel like you’re bluffing and blundering your way through life, putting yourself down offers a perverse kind of safety net. Look, it says: I know I don’t know what I’m doing. You don’t have to tell me.

But here’s the thing – you do know what you’re doing. Whether you’re a staff member at a big organisation, a freelancer or a small business owner, if you’re hitting your targets, meeting your deadlines and managing to keep a roof over your head, you’ve proved that you’re more than capable. Don’t do yourself a disservice by pretending otherwise.

Below, three successful women share how they learned to stop being self-deprecating. 

Otegha Uwagba, brand consultant 

Uwagba is the founder of creative women’s network Women Who and the author of Little Black Book: A Toolkit for Working Women (Fourth Estate, £5).

It’s important to think really carefully about the language you use at work. I think women tend to apologise for merely having an opinion or an idea, or asking someone to do their job – and it is something you can train yourself out of doing.

I used to use qualifiers and half-apologies to caveat my sentences in emails and in conversation. Even if I was very confident about what I was saying, I’d start my sentences with: “I might be wrong on this, but…” Or I’d finish by asking, “Does that make sense?” I was often the youngest person in the room in certain professional contexts, as well as the only woman or the only woman of colour, so I felt I needed to diminish the force and weight of my ideas in order to avoid seeming overbearing.

That doesn’t scream confidence. In fact, it’s essentially self-sabotage. It undermines your credibility, and that’s doing yourself a disservice, because chances are your ideas are very good. If you’re a woman and you’ve volunteered an opinion, you probably know what you’re talking about. And if you’ve worked hard to get to where you are, why fall at the last hurdle through self-inflicted damage?

I tried to stop being so self-deprecating when I noticed that I was doing it in my emails. That prompted a stage in my career where I’d spend more time reviewing my emails than writing them. Before I sent one, I’d go through it and strip out all the extra language that I thought made me seem more agreeable, but which actually made me seem smaller. Instead of saying “I just feel like”, I’d say: “I think”. Rather than saying, “I was just wondering”, I’d say: “Can you let me know?” I realised that it’s possible to be polite while also being direct.

Once I started doing that in my emails, it spilled over into my face-to-face interactions. I think the best way to tackle it is to sit down, look at the emails you’re sending, and start taking that language out. After you’ve done that, it will become second nature in real life, too. 

Katie Smyth, florist 

Smyth co-founded flower delivery and events service Worm London. Her book with Terri Chandler, WREATHS: Fresh, Foraged & Dried Floral Arrangements, is out now (Quadrille, £14.99). 

Terri and I are always talking about how self-deprecating we are. We’re both from Ireland, and it’s a very Irish trait to be super self-deprecating. But when we started Worm, we realised that whenever someone gave us a compliment about a job, we’d start downplaying it immediately. They’d say something looked great, and we’d start finding things we could have done better. And we used to be terrible for telling everyone stories about things going wrong.

But you have to get out of that habit, because if you don’t, people start to believe that’s actually who you are. Nobody wants to rely on someone who’s putting themselves down all the time – confidence comes across as competence, and people are looking for competence when they’re buying something or hiring someone. If I’m buying a bunch of flowers, I don’t want the person selling them to be like: “Oh, I guess they’re alright, aren’t they?” I want them to say, “Yeah, they’re really gorgeous!”

For me, a big part of learning to stop being so self-deprecating was about realising that negativity could have an impact on the business. I have a tendency to put myself down, but Terri and I are the face of Worm, so it’s important we leave a good, positive impression when we meet customers face-to-face. Self-deprecation comes in where you take everything really personally, so we both had to learn to be more objective about our work and stop treating it as an extension of how we saw ourselves.

In a way, the fact there’s two of us makes it easier. We’re less likely to be harsh on ourselves because it’s a team effort. We can both be like: “We did a great job on that, and we should be really proud.”

It’s also about remembering that everyone’s blagging it a little bit. I think people can be afraid that they’re not totally qualified for what they’re doing, so they say it before anyone else notices. But nobody can do everything; everyone’s learning as they go. Terri and I are never going be like “look what we did, aren’t we brilliant?” – but we are learning to be more quietly confident.

Ros Taylor, corporate coach 

Taylor is a clinical psychologist, corporate coach, a business professor at Strathclyde University and the CEO of Ros Taylor Company. She is also the author of several careers books, including Confidence at Work (Kogan Page, £12.99).

I used to habitually self-deprecate, saying things like: “With my luck, I’ll trip over!” Then I realised I was just putting myself down before anyone else did. I think women have a huge desire for likeability, and that can be great – it’s a fabulous thing to be likeable. But it shouldn’t be our only tool in the box. We also need to be respected, and to develop the ability to stand up for ourselves. That’s difficult to achieve if you’re constantly being self-deprecating.

I think women hate to boast and bulls**t, because that’s what egocentric guys do. But my number one piece of advice for tackling self-deprecation is: don’t paint yourself out of the picture and say it was everybody else’s hard work. A classic error is saying “oh, the team have done fabulously well”, when actually, what we should say is: “The team have done really well, and I’ve loved leading them.”

Tip number two: remember you don’t have to be the world’s best to be worthy of praise. Acknowledging you’ve done well at something isn’t boasting; you’re not saying “I’m fantastic, I’m the best thing since sliced bread.” What you are saying is: “I’m good at this.”

Point number three: know what your strengths are. Ask a friend or a trusted colleague what they think you’re best at – or there are some great online assessments you can take to identify your strengths. Once you know what you’re good at, you can practice telling people. Find a succinct, pithy way of summing up who you are, what you do and what you love, and say it in the mirror until you feel comfortable and relaxed doing it. Think of it as a 30-second commercial for yourself.

Self-deprecation can sometimes be a useful strategy. It reminds me of Columbo the TV detective, who would come shuffling in in his old mac and then surprise everyone with a killer question. But it should be used on purpose, rather than as a habit. If it comes as naturally to you as breathing, you need to stop and ask yourself: why am I doing this? 

The Big Yourself Up column is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, a year-long initiative to celebrate women’s success and inspire others to follow their lead. See more Visible Women stories here.

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