The Fine Line of Self-Deprecation

I had an interesting question come up in a workshop last week. One of the participants made a statement and then asked me to validate it… he said “You can never go wrong being self-deprecating… right?

I thought about it for a few moments, and quickly responded with “I am not sure I agree with that.

(Preface to my full answer… I immediately get uncomfortable whenever anyone approaches ANY discussion loaded with lots of absolutes: “always” or “never.” In my experience there are very few true absolutes when discussing human behaviors and interactions. There are almost always lots of ways of looking at anything, especially in a world that cares more and more about inclusion and different perspectives. So, in my answer, I quickly defaulted to searching for an answer based on balance. I always hate giving an answer that includes the phrase, “it depends,” but the fact is that it almost always DOES depend. Back to the workshop discussion…)

We discussed this issue for several minutes, from a variety of angles.

There are benefits to relying on self-deprecation as a form of humor and interaction. Especially if you are trying to put someone else at ease, someone whom you think might be nervous, or intimidated. A little self-deprecation can ease tension, create a moment of levity, put you and the intimidated person at a similar level. Self-deprecation can humanize you or the moment. It can be a very powerful tool.

BUT… and here comes the balance part… too much of any good thing can eventually become a bad thing. What if the moment does not require that you humanize yourself? What if the person isn’t nervous or intimidated? What if, instead, the person or the moment would benefit rather from you establishing more authority and stepping up to stronger position? In these sorts of situations, the risk of self-deprecation is that you are now no longer humanizing yourself. The risk is that you start to minimize yourself. And what was once a really good technique, now became a really bad one.

So like almost any other situation, and like almost any other piece of coaching advice that I give, before you make a final decision on how to behave in a certain moment, take a look at the situation, and think about what is required in that particular moment. Would it be helpful if you humanized yourself, and created a little levity? Great, then self-deprecation will be an important tool in your toolbox. Or, would this moment be better if rather you showed strength and conviction? OK… then leave the self deprecation tool in the toolbox today. Use a different tool.

I hope this helps. Have a great day!

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– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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3 responses to “The Fine Line of Self-Deprecation”

  1. Satyam Bendapudi says:

    Really good point! I’ve been in leadership meetings where I would have much rather not have the leader diminish themselves. Not only did it compromise their standing (in my eyes) it also made them look less confident of their vision. On the flip-side, I’ve also seen leaders not do it when it would really have helped…as in admitting a mistake.

    Good leaders, I found, strike the right balance by (appropriately) humanizing themselves followed by a re-assertion of their stated viewpoint and direction. Teams like to see someone that is courageous enough to have, and champion, a vision while not coming across as total know-it-alls.

  2. Bridget says:

    If not handled properly it can be distracting and disruptive.
    Valuable tool in moderation and after careful consideration.

  3. Doug Shefsky says:

    “Everything in moderation… except Awesome – you can never have too much awesome!”

    Spot on Dean!
    As a recovering engineer I appreciate a good “it depends” answer and I’ve lived both sides of exhibiting too much/little self-deprecation. Acknowledging the separate realities of you and your audience allows determining what’s needed in that situation: it almost ‘always’ comes back to GAP (Goal Audience Plan) method.

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Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.