Leading the Overly Self-Critical Employee

“She’s hard on herself, but it’s because she demands excellence. ” “The team is relentless in their pursuit of perfection.” How many times have you heard others – or said something similar – and meant it as a compliment? When employees demand perfection of themselves, there’s a fine line between healthy striving and self-defeating perfectionism. As with all things related to leadership communication, there is a nuance to providing this praise. And if you’re not aware of it, you may be doing more damage than good. Read on to learn more about employees who are “hard on themselves” and what you as a leader can do if their self-criticism is starting to impact their mental wellbeing and productivity.  

High-Performing Employees: When is Perfection “Too Much”?

It probably comes as no surprise to you that there are “healthy” types of perfectionism and not-so healthy versions. Striving for improvement is a worthy goal and is a “healthy” type of perfectionism. As a leader, you want people on your team who set high standards for themselves and achieve their goals.  

However, say experts, too much focus on perfection can swing the pendulum into unhealthy territory.  Psychologists call this maladaptive perfectionism. Signs that your employee may have an unhealthy relationship with their quest for perfection:

  • An excessive preoccupation with controlling outcomes
  • Fear of making mistakes 
  • Constantly asking for  reassurance

What, then, is the “secret sauce” of striving for excellence? How can you, as a leader, encourage people to do their best without heaping extra pressure on the already self-critical employee? Turns out there’s an important combination of traits that set apart the confident and resilient individual from the counterproductive perfectionist.

[Related: Is Your Perfectionism Working For Or Against You?]

It’s Good To Be Confident (Even Better To Be Self-Compassionate)

You’ve probably noticed that your most confident employees are also among some of your most productive and satisfied.  But have you ever encountered an employee who seems confident on the outside, but yet in conversation, they reveal hyper-criticism of their successes?  It’s like no matter how much they succeed, they’re still not satisfied. Or, they fall apart when a project suffers a set-back and they assign a disproportionate amount of blame to themselves. 

It would seem that confidence would be a leading indicator for success at work, but it turns out that the true people equation is “confidence +self-compassion = workplace success.”

According to studies by Dr. Kristin Neff, a noted researcher in the field of self-compassion, it’s  those employees who have both confidence and the ability to “cut themselves some slack” after experiencing failure who are the most able to handle the stresses of their everyday work life.  

If you’re noticing that a team member is being highly self-critical – and spinning in a cycle of blaming themselves –  it’s time for you to step in as a leader and coach them. 

Ways To Help Employees Who Are Overly Self-Critical

So, how to help an employee who is talented, but experiencing a bout of overly self-critical behavior? It’s not enough to say, “quit being so hard on yourself”; you need to help them build skill and perspective for when life hands them a bummer. And one of the best ways to do this is to help employees realize the degree to which the “stories” they’re telling themselves are getting in the way of their progress. 

Acknowledge The Critic. We all have an inner critic that evaluates our actions. So it’s important to validate with your employee that “The Critic” shows up for all of us. Help them see that it’s how we handle this voice of doubt determines if we continue to ride the struggle bus or are able to bounce back. 

What are Their Stories? Humans make sense of the world by carrying on an inner monologue about their observations, experiences and interactions. These “stories” in our heads seem like the absolute truth. But in reality, there are many ways to view the world. And a great leader helps people see alternate narratives that can guide people out of discouragement and into hope. 

Encourage your employee to harness the power of the “champion” and “editor” voices in their heads as a way to manage their inner critic.

  • The champion is our internal cheerleader and says things like, “you have handled tough situations like this in the past” and “you’ve got this!”
  • The editor looks for unhelpful statements like, “you really blew this project” or, “there goes my chance for that promotion” and reframes them with more realistic assessments such as, “It’s true that I screwed up; and I’m going to do what it takes to get back on track” or, “Am I really the stupidest person on the planet right now? No, I made a mistake.”

Help Them Take a Step Back. To gain perspective, sometimes we need to step outside of ourselves. If an employee is really stuck in the shame/blame cycle, it might be helpful to suggest this exercise from Dr. Nef – imagine you are comforting a colleague who is feeling badly about a mistake they made at work. What would you say to them? This “what would you say to a friend?” exercise helps people gain distance from their situation. It helps mitigate what psychologists call “catastrophizing” – the tendency to take small errors and blow them out of proportion.

Encouraging employees to have self-compassion isn’t letting them off the hook for their mistakes and miscues. It’s about encouraging a healthy mindset to rebound from setbacks so they can build resilience and move on to a more productive work life.  As this article from the BBC highlights, science indicates that building emotional resilience in the form of self-compassion improves health and productivity. And that’s a win for leaders and employees alike.


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