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02 November 2012 @ 02:09 pm
go easy on my friend!  
Sometimes, people around me say really terrible things about themselves. I mean, okay, we all do it, right? But sometimes people say them out loud, to me, in a way that I think is meant to be apologetic, but also seems to be seeking at least an implicit agreement. "I'm such an idiot!" you might say, after making a mistake, or "Wow, I'm a jerk," when you turn up late for a dinner plan.

I feel a moderately able deal with this in my friends. I don't think you people are idiots or jerks even when you do idiotic or jerky things, because you aren't what you do, and the small cases just aren't the bulk of what makes you up. So I can say, "You're not an idiot!" or "I know the feeling!" and that's that. Though I don't always do that, because I often feel like acknowledging these statements, which are usually conversational asides, makes them bigger than they were intended to be, and I almost don't want to give the sentiment that attention. That said, I, in general, think it's better (for me) to at least express my disagreement with the sentiment.

I'm running into it a bit, though, in my work life, and it feels trickier to address it with my direct reports. It has all the same challenges of encountering it with a friend, plus the complication of "I'm your boss." I'm not really excited about letting it go, even if it's casual self-talk, because the people who work for me are, like my friends, GREAT people, who sometimes make mistakes, and also because some of them are women, for whom that kind of verbalization can be VERY detrimental in a professional setting, so I feel like it's part of my job as a good boss and mentor to help them rein it in, both internally and externally.

But it feels trickier to call them on it than a friend, because we don't have the same kind of casualness in our interactions. And because, yes, I'm their boss, and I know that sometimes, if you're in a ditch, it brings you lower to hear that you're ALSO failing at liking yourself enough, or something like that. (I'm really only worried about that last bit for one of my reports -- the others, I think, it's not so loaded.)

Anyway, so, I'm noodling on this a fair amount, and I'm interested to hear how you deal with it in yourself, your friends, your colleagues. How do you like to be handled in various settings when you're getting down on yourself? What helps?
I'm feeling: thoughtfulthoughtful
traballenguastraballenguas on November 2nd, 2012 06:34 pm (UTC)
You are a good boss.

I had this experience last night. Went out to dinner with my mother and some dude left his iPhone on the table. I went out after him, and he thanked me and said "I'm an idiot", which caught me completely off guard. I think I said "No problem", but it was awkward.

In the workplace environment it is, of course, embedded in a relationship that you can build on and work through. I like your thoughts on this.

My boss made a huge error a few weeks before I left the job in CA, and I found it. It was awkward, and I felt bad for him, but I didn't really know how to express sympathy, other than vague things like "there are always mistakes, that is why it is important to build fault-tolerant systems". Kinda not about feelings at all, but it was a very testosterone-fueled place in some ways, and something else would/could have made things tricky for me. Sometimes sympathy can be interpreted as indirect criticism, if someone is really touchy.

Edited at 2012-11-02 06:36 pm (UTC)
phoenixamber_phoenix on November 2nd, 2012 06:37 pm (UTC)
With my employees, I will often casually rephrase something, but I tend to leave it at that rather than directly discussing the issue of self-denigration. I spend some considerable effort coaching people in productivity and great communication, and this work into that conversation as well.

If someone does this in communication with customers or other managers, I do address it more directly in a "please don't make the team look bad" way.
sunstealer: spidermanholesunstealer on November 2nd, 2012 07:02 pm (UTC)
This is similar to what I did when supervising staff. I tended to pass by the "wow i'm stupid" comments and simply address the facts of the actual (or perceived) problem and make sure the person in question knew I was happy with their overall work. If the self-denigration was frequent, I'd bring it up, but not in a moment when they were saying or feeling the bad stuff. Wait a bit until they're past the negative mindset. It's easier for people to absorb positive feedback when they're not actively feeling bad about themselves.
Kcatkcatalyst on November 2nd, 2012 06:54 pm (UTC)
I think, possibly wrongly, there's a useful distinction to be made between self-denigration and self-critique or self-acknowledgement. When I forget something, it's not uncommon for me to say "I'm such an idiot." or "I'm not very smart." But it's not at all the case that I think I'm a stupid person about everything. I have a faulty memory for specific kinds of things and it bites me on the ass a lot in ways that I try to manage. But I'm good at other stuff and am lucky enough that a lot of that stuff falls into Smart Person territory that people give me money and respect for.

So when I say I'm an idiot, it's not associated with bad pathways of never amounting to anything, It's somewhere between a self-monitoring system and a joke. And I think those are really useful things.

So I think the right response will depend on where someone falls in that space. If someone's seriously beating up on themselves, as a boss I think it can be useful to provide some reassurance as to their general worth as an employee. But I would find it really disconcerting if I got back a "don't be so hard on yourself" in reply to a tossed off "I'm such an idiot." I'd be tempted to respond "Don't worry, I'm massively arrogant! I'm just acknowledging that I am also forgetful."
drwex: WWFDdrwex on November 2nd, 2012 08:26 pm (UTC)
I think that's a very important point
What I read you to say is that there isn't a good generic response - that the response depends on what one knows of the speaker.

My own personal style is to acknowledge and move on. I'll usually respond with something like "don't sweat it, let's figure out how to..." I imagine that it helps the speaker to hear me respond directly but not dwell on it, and being positive- or forward-focused is usually something people can agree on, regardless of what they've done.
Elizabeth Hunterlillibet on November 2nd, 2012 07:29 pm (UTC)
I think that this is a very damaging habit and, as you note, particularly relevant for women--in the workplace and other spheres.

At the theatre, which is somewhat different from a workplace, but where I have a similar managing role, I find myself often dealing with this. One of the responses I find useful is a positive contraction, like "Actually, I think you're pretty clever." If it's a pattern, then I try to bring it up at a non-vulnerable time, saying something like "I've noticed you run yourself down fairly often and that's a pattern you might want to think about." In a more friendly context, I often pull out the quotation about "If a friend said things like that to you, would s/he still be your friend?"

May we all treat ourselves more kindly.
harimad on November 2nd, 2012 07:38 pm (UTC)
Three thoughts
I interpret these statements as an apology, to which one is expected to say "Not at all" or equivalent. IOW, the speaker expects to be contradicted rather than agreed with.

If the problem is just the statements, I point the difference between doing something stupid/jerky and actually being stupid/a jerk. For me at least, this worked for friends and for employees. (I've been known to add that if the speaker kept saying he was an idiot people might believe him, but that response is highly audience-specific.)

If the problem is someone who's feeling low about zirself, then I don't think there's one single sure-fire way to approach it successfully. It's going to depend on what makes that person feel valued or valuable. From what you've posted here I am confident that you'd be able to figure out a strategy.

Finally, one last possibility is to cast it as a professional facade issue. "While you may feel this is true, or not take it seriously at all; the person you're saying it to may take it seriously. So in case that person thinks that way, you may want to consider phrasing your apology in a different way."

Katefenicedautun on November 2nd, 2012 09:09 pm (UTC)
I actually think that often "I'm an idiot" is shorthand for "I feel like an idiot" which most people recognize is just a temporary feeling caused by doing something idiotic but is not indicative of wider trends. I think stating to your direct reports that you believe that the full "I feel like an idiot" is preferable (for various reasons which you can elaborate) is probably a fine (and good) thing to do.
David Policardpolicar on November 3rd, 2012 12:24 am (UTC)
I sometimes say stuff like this, though I don't endorse saying it. Sometimes people will call me on it, and I'll admit I was wrong, and that'll be that.

I have sometimes with friends replied "I'd rather you didn't talk that way about my friends." It gets me some interesting reactions, and is probably my favorite short response. (I sometimes reply "Why do you say that?" if I have time for a longer conversation.)

I think with coworkers who are clearly junior to me, I endorse replying "No, you aren't" and move on. Ditto with my direct reports. With coworkers where there isn't an obvious status gulf, I'd probably avoid that kind of response (which frames me as in a position to judge) and instead go with "I'd rather you didn't talk that way about our coworkers." Same for people where anything contingent on status differentials is culturally fraught, e.g. for demographic reasons.
born from jets!!!: catVcatness on November 3rd, 2012 01:56 am (UTC)
Sometimes I have this situation with my team of reports, and I'm not super keen on the self-denigration, either, when it's real rather than joking. My employees are all male, but I don't think I'd respond differently to women on these particular examples. I might take a woman aside and discuss The Perils Of Perception, however, but that would not happen at the time mistakes were made, and would be a general aside about being female in the tech workplace.

When someone on my team goofs, usually it's something we can undo without lasting repercussions, but sometimes it is a VERY big deal and can have rippling effects. Either big or small errors, however, can cause the person doing them to feel stupid and talk about it that way. My answer is always along these scripts:

"No, I don't hire stupid people. You've worked here [X months/years], so you can assume I am happy with your work and have faith in your abilities. However, everyone makes mistakes, and this is one of them. After we solve the immediate problems, we can figure out how we can prevent these mistakes in the future."

"No, being paranoid about next steps is not stupid. Double checking is always good. Thank you for checking with me before [performing X task]. Here's some background information on the work we're doing and why we do it this way. Always feel free to ask me any questions at any time, and don't feel like you're clueless or stupid for asking. What you do is very far removed from the why of it, there are volumes of knowledge that you couldn't be expected to know, and I'm always happy to help you fill in the gaps if you're interested."

If the mistakes made are trademark behaviors of the employee, that can also be the jumping off point for a conversation that begins, "No, I don't hire stupid people. However, sometimes you can get a little rattled in certain types of situations. Let's take some time in the next week to talk about ways we can help you feel more secure in what you're doing and come up with strategies for minimizing mistakes in these kinds of stressful scenarios."

Then, I typically end the conversation with, "Also, you're fired." :)

The first guy I hired back in 2006 once said to the team, "Yeah, one day security's going to be escorting me off the premises, and I'll be saying, 'No, really. She ALWAYS says that, she was totally kidding. Wait... no... really... Guys? HEY!!!'"
(Deleted comment)
born from jets!!!catness on November 3rd, 2012 11:17 pm (UTC)
Well, except that there's a six year culture on our team of being joke fired, everybody's in on the joke, and sometimes people are fired several times a day. In the beginning, I only ever fired myself. Nobody new ever gets fired until they've seen someone else fired multiple times, and all of my team understands the open door policy of "Can I talk with you a minute?" about anything at all, including inter-personal banter. Since I assembled this team, I've only had to fire one person for real, and the words "you're fired" were never used in that process.

I understand that you would feel horrified with this, but that doesn't mean you're atypical or weird. How my team interacts is likely not a typical work environment, and you shouldn't expect that I think it is, or that most people would.
metaphortunate sonmetaphortunate on November 4th, 2012 12:25 am (UTC)
I love this response. God, I wish my boss would be more this way.
yixyix on November 4th, 2012 07:43 pm (UTC)
I have recently experienced this a bunch with my first direct report that I actually hired myself. I struggled with it, and probably didn't handle it as well as I might have. What I did end up doing was having a frank discussion with him that went something like this.

Me: You say those sorts of things a lot.
Him: Yeah, I know, I suck. I guess it's just a habit.
Me: You are doing a great job. When I offer you additional information that you can use next time it is because I recognize that you need it, not because I think you are doing a poor job. However, when you make those comments, it frankly makes my job training you more difficult. I will always be up front with you if I feel like you did something careless or made a poor choice, but if I don't directly tell you that, you can assume that I don't agree with your statement that you suck. Otherwise, I will probably ignore those sorts of comments entirely.

After that I was sure to give him plenty of specific positive feedback (I was doing it before, but I pay more attention now) and while he still says stuff like that, I ignore it and the frequency has gone down.

DancingWolfGrrldancingwolfgrrl on November 7th, 2012 02:32 am (UTC)
When I say things like this in response to minor professional errors, I sometimes find "is there anything you could've done differently that would've helped?" to be a useful response. I also definitely say things like this in ways that I don't mean and I appreciate the reminder to watch out for it.

When it's something I say to get reassurance, I have appreciated a very evenly delivered "good to know" as a way of engaging without feeding into the feeling-bad-equals-getting-attention pattern.
sarahshevettsarahshevett on November 10th, 2012 05:57 pm (UTC)
I think when people say stuff like this they want you to say" Oh no you're not" and therefore get some positive reinforcement. Therefore it's a plea for praise...