“Don’t be so humble; you are not that great,” said former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. This quote was a wake-up call for me when I read it. For years, I used self-deprecation as my go-to tactic to build rapport.

I grew up in a small village. I had the highest grades in my class, and it was uncomfortable. Being more academic than my classmates made me a target for social isolation. I felt that the Japanese were right: ‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

I developed many techniques to avoid getting hammered down in school. The most significant of them was self-deprecation. What worked well in school was an impediment in the business world.

Why self-deprecation at work is often a bad idea

FT’s Kellaway writes:

“Self-deprecation is only dangerous if there is any chance at all that the person you are talking to might agree with it.”

If I compliment you on your essay and you respond that “well, it had a bit of a slow beginning,” you might think you are coming across as humble. But, I have no reason to doubt what you say, so I will probably change my mind about how great I thought your essay was.

Still not convinced that self-deprecation is often a bad idea? Let’s look at the data:

  • Self-deprecating humor makes you less attractive to the other sex if you are perceived to be of lower status.
  • If you are the leader, humility can backfire as your team might interpret it as weakness, indecisiveness, or lack of confidence.
  • People like better those who promote themselves than those who talk themselves down. And they like the ones who give a balanced view of themselves the best.
  • 70% of the time, the humor women use in business is based on self-deprecation. Given the common bias that women are not as good leaders as their male counterparts, self-deprecating humor is seen, at best, as unfunny and, at worst, as a sign of being unfit for leadership.

Self-deprecation can work in a limited set of circumstances. If you are the CEO or the president, self-deprecation helps reduce the perceived status gap. In many other cases, though, it can backfire.

Humbleness Can Be Egotistical

People will often display modesty because they find boastful people distasteful. There is some truth in that. Usually, self-aggrandising people are insecure with a “look at me” energy. But the opposite of modest does not have to be boastful. It can simply be authentic, self-aware, or confident.

Most of us do not realize that there is something egotistical behind the need to tone down one’s achievements.

We implicitly assume that we have a higher status than our counterparts. If we were honest, others would feel worse about themselves or dislike us. So, we believe it is safer to come across as “less.”

If we believed in true equality, we would not need to tone ourselves down. If we believed in other people’s genius as much as our own, we would know that each has their own talent, brilliance, pace, and priorities.

There is no real difference in status that we need to bridge with self-deprecation. We are all equal but different. We can all be ourselves and walk shoulder-to-shoulder.

Another reason we use self-deprecation is fishing for compliments or pre-empting other people’s negative comments. We might volunteer that we put on weight to avoid someone else mentioning it first or hoping they will tell us that we look great.

It is understandable. Putting ourselves down becomes a shield to protect us from ego injury. Often though, we will achieve the opposite of what we intended – we will make people more aware of what we hoped they did not notice.

Connecting Authentically With Others

What about the actual inequalities in the world? Isn’t it tone-deaf for you to publicly celebrate your 5-start holiday, for example, when people are starving in the world? Aren’t you better off showing off your old, threadbare jumper instead?

If you can explain how hiding your 5-star holiday is helping the starving people, I will be glad to hear it. Philanthropy, voting, or buying from conscious businesses supports underprivileged people. Hiding our success doesn’t.  

A big problem sustaining inequalities is the scarcity of successful role models for women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+, and more. Let’s break this pattern.

Sharing our successes shows what is possible. To our family. To the people from our hometown or school. To anyone who can identify with us at some level. We have the power to give hope and inspiration.

Self-deprecation is not necessary. Authenticity helps us connect authentically with people. Not hiding. Not looking down on others or ourselves. Recognising the genius in you, which is the same as the genius in me (namaste).

Marianne Williamson said it best:

“There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

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Will your success trigger some people? Yes. They might momentarily feel worse about themselves. But, your achievements will inspire many others. They will show them what is possible.

No need to go overboard on the other side and be boastful. We do not need “look at me” energy. We can share ourselves and our light from a place of service.

Also, as executive career consultant Jean-Louis Goedmakers pointed out to me it is worth keeping all the positive attributes we often attribute to a humble leader: being open to new ideas, willing to learn from others, admitting mistakes, and managing one’s ego.

What you don’t want to do is presume you are not important, because you are. Bringing this back to work, our audience, boss, or clients need to know the facts. They need to understand what makes us the best person for the job. Hiding this information is doing them a disservice and potentially leading them to suboptimal decisions.

Sometimes you will feel the urge to tone it down.

Hide your successes. Hide your happiness. Hide your wealth. Hide your intellect.

You do not want to be perceived as a show-off or arrogant.

You do not want people to be jealous.

Please, do not dim your light. Don’t hide. Be all of you.

Your shining gives permission to the rest of us to do the same.

Additional Resources

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