How To Give Feedback To An Employee Who Is Extremely Self-Critical

A manager writes:

 How do I give feedback to my employee when she's already so critical of herself?  She's constantly making disparaging remarks about her abilities, her appearance, real or imagined mistakes... you name it.  She already seems so down on herself that I hate to "pile on" with feedback, but the fact is that her lack of confidence is a problem!  
We need for our colleagues to perceive our team as competent and confident, and her vocal self-criticism is detracting from that. It's also sometimes true that she did make a mistake, but when she calls herself a loser for it, I feel like I can't talk to her about the actual mistake.  How do I get her to stop being so down on herself, without making her feel even worse?

This is tough.  An important part of the manager-employee relationship is giving feedback, and if you feel like you can't say anything, that is bad for the employee, the team, and you as the manager.  Some employees self-flagellate as a preemptive tactic to avoid feedback, but that doesn't sound like that's what's going on here.  This almost sounds like someone who could use some guidance from a trained professional to help her develop a stronger sense of self-worth.  As her manager, though, you shouldn't delve into that territory.  (If your company has an employee assistance program, you can ensure that she is aware of the resources, but tread very, very carefully and never require that she use them.)  That doesn't mean you can't give her feedback, though, and by doing so, you will not only help her to be more successful but also might even help her to have a more accurate sense of her capabilities and performance.

While the root causes of the behavior might be complex, your job as a manager is to address the behavior.  There are two areas of focus: being self-critical in front of people outside the team, and being self-critical in a way that dissuades additional feedback from you as her manager.  The first one is more pressing and a bit easier to address (since it is about the impact on you and other members of the team as well, not just on her).  The second one is more challenging but may become easier if she can learn to catch herself when others are around. 


Preparation

This is definitely not a conversation you want to have unprepared.  It needs to be private, and you will want to think it through carefully.

  1. Identify specific examples of when the employee has made self-deprecating remarks in front of others (ideally not just you).  
  2. If possible, select one example where the criticism wasn't completely off-base and one where it was.  (This is to help the employee understand that it doesn't matter whether or not it feels true in the moment - the key is to avoid conveying it to internal or external clients.)
  3. Determine a potential impact if the listeners were to take the employee at his or her word.  For example, if the employee said, "I always screw everything up!" how might that affect how your boss views you and your team?
  4. Review the script below and make notes for what you want to say.  If you can, practice with a peer or a friend. 

Conversation

Important: Frame the problem by focusing on the behavior and its impact, not any assumptions about her internal motivations.

First, if she is in fact a good employee, let her know!  

She may deflect or negate your feedback, but it's important that you convey to her the specific contributions you see her making to the team.  If, however, her lack of confidence is negatively affecting the quality of her work, don't give false praise.  Skip this step or just convey the importance of the whole team being viewed as competent and credible by others.

Introduce the topic so she knows what's coming.  

"I've noticed that when we are in meetings with people outside the team, you will sometimes make self-critical comments."

Give the specific example(s) you identified.

"For example, in our meeting with the Snarlywog team last week when Cam disagreed with the approach you had taken, you said 'That was so dumb of me!' When [grand-boss] was in our area on Monday, you said within her earshot, 'I'm never going to get the hang of this - I'm such a loser.' "

Convey the impact of the behavior.

"I am concerned that comments like that may cause [grand-boss] and other teams to think that we are not a strong team and that we can't deliver on our goals.  I also don't want them to think that you are less capable than you are, as that might cause them to stop bringing requests to you for processing."

Express support.  

"If there is something that you need help with or unclear about, please feel free to come to me.  I can't double-check every task, but I can help you understand the general approach to take or affirm what you've decided, like your excellent judgment with the Snarlywog issue."

Request the behavior change.  

"It's important, though, that all of us convey credibility and professionalism to external folks.  It's okay to be uncertain or upset about your mistakes, but please only share that with me or other members of the team.  When we're around others, I'd like you to avoid making critical remarks of anyone on the team, including yourself.  If someone disagrees with your work, like Cam did last week, explain your logic and ask clarifying questions rather than immediately reacting as if you're in the wrong.  Can you do that?"

Reinforce the behavior.

Reinforcement is always tricky, since it's easier to find examples of doing wrong rather than doing right, but in this case it is particularly important to try to notice when the employee is not self-criticizing.  One tactic might be to look for situations where she was uncertain or when things went wrong - was she able to stay positive?  Any time you notice it, even if it doesn't dawn on you until several days later (since it was an absence of a behavior, which is by definition hard to spot), be sure to point it out to her.  Let her know you noticed.  If someone comments to you positively about her work, be sure to pass it along. 

If the employee inadvertently engages in self-deprecation again, which is likely given that this sounds like an ingrained habit, use your judgment about whether to respond in the moment or in private later, depending on the circumstances.  Call it out, though, and make sure the focus is not on whether or not the criticism true but the impact of the behavior.  

This is a tough situation, because your instinct will be to try and build up the employee's self-esteem.  That's not something you're equipped to do, though, and it's not part of your job.   You can, however, help the employee learn to fake confidence, if only for the sake of the team, and that may in time help create genuine confidence.

Related resources

  • This post on Ask a Manager is about a peer, not a direct report, but it gets at some of the underlying issues and has some helpful phrases a manager could use.
  • If you're not sure whether or not something is worth mentioning, here is advice on when to give feedback.
  • To really prepare for the conversation, here is a detailed script for having a difficult feedback conversation.