Who Do You Think You Are?

I didn’t mean to write this article. But it came to me, and it hung around for a while, and it needed out. So I’m sharing it with you.

I got a message on LinkedIn a couple of days ago from an acquaintance. They had seen a post I had shared, and the comment I had associated with it, and both had struck a chord with this person. She wanted to thank me for the content, and share what the content had meant to her.

The article showed up on Fast Company a couple of weeks back. It was one that resonated strongly with me, and spoke to some of my core inner frustrations. To summarize the essential points: if you are giving a presentation, and you want people to listen to you:

  • don’t claim you’re tired/jet-lagged/hungover
  • don’t suggest that you didn’t have time to prepare
  • don’t point out all the mistakes in your slides as you find them

What I loved about this advice is that it directly undercuts a sentiment that is seemingly alive and well: that if we diminish expectations, then we lower the bar we have to clear in order to do well. Instead, the article lays dead to rights a fundamental truth: if you downplay what’s about to happen, you are basically signalling to your audience that you don’t value them enough to take the time do delivery your presentation well.

That is a powerful message. It might not be the one that’s intended, but it’s going to be heard loud and clear by the people in front of you, whether you like it or not. It also leads to a pretty fundamental question: Just WHY do you think that you need to undercut expectations, just as you’re about to deliver a presentation that you’ve been asked to make, to an audience that’s gathered to hear it?

There are a few possible answers to that question. None of them are awesomely positive:

  • You might genuinely be tired, jet-lagged, hungover or woefully unprepared. If this is true, though, ask yourself this next question: Why are you here? Why did you say yes? And why didn’t you save everyone the pain of listening to you by just calling in sick?
  • You might be trying to deliberately lower the bar of what you’re about to deliver, so that anything better than “utterly incompetent” looks good. Which again leads to the question: if you don’t think you can present well, then why did you agree to do it?
  • You think this is endearing and sets you up as the underdog, so that the audience is rooting for you. If this is the case, I hate to disabuse you of the notion, but they’re not. They’re inwardly cringing about the fact that they’re in this room for the next hour, and are too far from the doors to make a graceful and discreet exit.
  • You might have been told that you come across as too confident, assertive or arrogant, and that you should tone things down a bit. Be more humble.
  • The comment that I had made about this article was that “self-deprecation was highly overrated.” And I believe that to be true, on a number of levels. For starters, a lot of what gets passed off as self-deprecation is actually seeking approval, praise and tummy rubs. Someone claims that they aren’t good, or aren’t prepared, or made some mistakes, so that people feel compelled to step in and reassure them that they’re awesome. That they did really well. It’s a relatively perverse form of managing expectations and outcomes: I’ll tell you that I’m not so great, so that you can correct me and tell me how awesome I actually am.

Where self-deprecative behaviour is personally motivated, the underlying drivers are often incredibly insecure and narcissistic. We’re consciously seeking out praise, by professing that we don’t deserve it. We’re downplaying expectations so that people feel compelled to raise their assessment. It’s the most manipulative and devious of interactions: passive-aggressively fishing for compliments by suggesting that people should find you inadequate and your presentation lacking.

The challenge is that this behaviour isn’t always self-motivated. And that was the basis of the message I received. The post had resonated with my colleague, in that she had been the repeated target of suggestions that she should come across as less confident, that she minimize her assertiveness, that she tone things down and be more self-deprecating. As she quite rightly pointed out, that’s not a message that men receive very frequently. For women, though, it’s an all too frequent occurrence. As I’ll argue below, it’s also incredibly unhelpful advice, regardless of gender.

That’s not to say that men never receive that message, of course. But the instances are far fewer and further between. Her comments made an impression on me, though, for two reasons. First, I recognize the truth of her statement: women do get told what they should or shouldn’t do far more than men do. But also because I have been on the receiving end of similar sentiments.

By way of context, I’m a consultant. And I learned a long time ago that what executives and clients value is reassurance. They want to know their problems will be solved. They are looking for the competence necessary to deliver good results. And—sadly—confidence is very often confused with competence. A profound but awkwardly delivered statement will be devalued, and its speaker dismissed. An unhinged but confidently expressed statement will often be taken as gospel truth. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. As a consultant, I quickly learned that not only did I need to be right, but I needed to instil confidence in the insights and recommendations that I was offering.

Fast forward a couple of decades, to when I started to work on my doctorate. In the process, I began to move in more academic circles. I attended conferences, got involved in research projects and gave my share of presentations at conferences and symposia. And I brought my own style of content and delivery to those presentations. They were polished. They were clear. I attempted to communicate complex ideas as simply and straightforwardly as a I could.

And that’s when the comments started. “You’re too confident.” “You should tone that down.” “You need to be a bit more self-deprecating.” And my personal favourite, “You sound too much like a consultant.”

At first, I tried to take the advice as helpful and constructive. Actually, I attempted to do that for a very long time. I was playing in a new context, and I was figuring I didn’t understand the rules. In many ways, I was on a very steep leaning curve, and I was anxious about that. I was trying to collaborate with people who had been in academia their entire careers. People who were steeped in research theory and concepts, had read more widely than I had in my field, who were professors in universities. I felt like I wasn’t playing according to accepted practice and following the script. And so I tried to change.

Trying to change was more than awkward. Toning it down. Being more cautious. Not being so confident. It felt like fading into the background, disappearing into the noise, struggling to be heard. Not being me.

This was, in retrospect, largely the point. I’ve written about the fact that ‘should’ is a problematic term before, that it’s unhelpful and interfering. And that is entirely true. When people tell us how we should behave, what we should and shouldn’t do, it is a rarely a product of being helpful. While it may be phrased as constructive, it is in all instances a reaction, and usually a negative one, to something we’ve done. We did something they didn’t like. We rubbed them the wrong way. They didn’t appreciate what we did, and how we did it.

The reality, though, is that telling us that we should or should not do something actually says far more about them than it does about us. And, when you probe a little more deeply, it offers a great deal of insight into the motivations of the person offering the advice. They may have not liked the message. They may have not liked the delivery. They may have not liked the presenter, or the presenter’s style. The fact that they offer criticism couched as “helpful advice” is them reacting to behaviours that make them uncomfortable, and very often those are behaviours that they find threatening.

Of course, there’s also a scenario where someone is just a godawful presenter. And the advice is attempting to suggest that perhaps they improve their technique. Or clarify the message. Or get off the stage. Regardless, the advice is still doing one thing and one thing only: it is attempting to control. It is attempting to impose your will on someone else. And unless that person has specifically asked for that advice, sought out your feedback because they value it, and want to hear it, then offering it is simply unhelpful and wrong.

If I experience a presenter that is uncomfortable, that is inexperienced, that is trying to do well but is still learning, I’m going to recognize it. They don’t need to tell me they are nervous. It will be more than clear, and from very early on. But they are trying. And I have to completely and absolutely respect that fact because they are making an effort. They are endeavouring to get good at something that a lot of people fear and avoid. They get significant points from me just for being willing to stand up and have something to say, no matter how badly they actually wind up doing it.

If I say anything at all to that person, it’s going to be positive. I’m going to try to find something, no matter how small, that I liked. That they did well. Where a bit of genuineness in them shone through. I’ll thank them for their presentation, and tell them that I loved that piece, that moment, that insight, or that conclusion. I’m not going to tell them what they did wrong, I’m going to offer them praise for what they did right. I’m going to encourage them to try again. Perhaps that comment sticks with them, and becomes the kernel of them continuing to improve. And perhaps it doesn’t. Ultimately, that doesn’t matter. But if I’m going to say anything, I’m going to try to build them up. I’m not going to try to tear them down.

And this is where we do come back to gender. Because, unfortunately, women do get told things like “tone it down” and “be less confident” far more than men. Because the people delivering those messages are very often threatened. They are unconfident in their own abilities. They are intimidated by the woman to whom they are offering their “helpful” advice. They are trying to control her, to diminish her, to encourage her to fade into the background. Above all, they are trying to make her less of a threat.

Controlling others isn’t about the target of the advice, it’s about the person offering it. It’s all about them. And if I could offer them helpful insight, if they were willing to listen, I’d say “If you’re uncomfortable, or threatened, or intimidated by someone else, then listen to that voice. Ask yourself why. And then try to get better.” The reality, though, is that they aren’t likely to be reading this article, or to recognize themselves in those words. And, sadly, they aren’t likely to have the self-awareness to recognize that their attempts to control and diminish others are more about them and their own insecurities.

But to those receiving that advice, who are being told what they should and shouldn’t do, I would offer this suggestion, in the honest and sincere hope that it’s helpful: Politely say thank you for the feedback, and then ignore it. Seek out feedback, certainly, but seek it out from those you respect and trust. And in particular, seek it out from those who respect you. Ask them what they liked. Ask them what resonated. Ask them what worked. Do more of that. Keep on doing more of that. And above all, keep on being you.

2 Comments to “Who Do You Think You Are?”

  1. Ed Synek says:

    First comment, is that we should always be mindful of our audience, or our stakeholders and the moment. I too have been told to project more confidence. At the time, I wasn’t very confident because it was a very difficult time. Where those difficult moments in a project occur and when bad news needs to be communicated takes practice.
    Most importantly though is I think we should always strive to be our authentic selves, and if folks don’t appreciate us, that says something too. Shouldn’t our confidence be a true barometer of our competence? I’ve seen many person’s where it isn’t.

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Thanks so much for your feedback, Ed. You are absolutely right about difficult moments requiring practice. And that makes for a really intersection with “shouldn’t we strive to be our authentic selves.” Some use that as cover for “this is me, and if you don’t like it, that’s on you” to cover up for aspects of how they show up that they are not good at (or to avoid any obligation to become better). Put those together, I think there are times we can be authentically bad at something (and that’s real, too). I think that authenticity needs to be looked at as when we become good at something, making sure we become good in a way that works for us. Trying to be something we’re not will be obvious. But it also show’s that we’re trying, and as long as we’re trying towards our best approach, that’s all to the good.

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