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“I’m so stupid” – dealing with self-criticism

How strong is your inner critic? Most of us have a critical voice in our heads at some point but for some people it’s relentless and often vicious. IMG_2549People who would never dream of calling someone else a completely useless idiot are often all too willing to apply the label to themselves.

I’m not suggesting that self-criticism has no function: a person who has no capacity for self-reflection can’t learn from their mistakes as they don’t think they’ve made any. Self-criticism has its place if it’s tempered with self-compassion. But if you’re a bit too good at the criticism bit but don’t manage to be kind to yourself, here are four strategies for handling your inner critic:

1. Stick to the specifics

A particularly nasty tendency of the inner critic is to generalise from one bad incident to your entire character. Let’s suppose a presentation goes badly. Instead of focusing on what went wrong, the inner critic gives it to you with both barrels until you conclude that you are stupid, sniveling idiot with no interpersonal skills who doesn’t deserve to ever be seen in polite company again.

The first thing to check is whether it really was as bad as you think. Inner critics can have very exacting standards. I still wince slightly at the memory of noticing too late that I’d written “the juries out” instead of “the jury’s out” in a widely-circulated document. In 1996. Maybe, actually, no one noticed that you skipped a slide. Or perhaps they were tolerant and understanding of your nervous hesitation. If so, give yourself a break, learn from it, move on.

But suppose it really was a disaster. Maybe you were rambling and incoherent and half the audience walked out. Then you got flustered, dried up and ran out of the room crying.puzzled-little-boy In that case, it probably was as bad you think. But that makes you a person who gave a bad presentation, not a completely useless idiot. It’s painful, but the evidence suggests that you will feel better if you focus on the specifics – what did you say, what was your tone of voice, what happened next and so on. Salvage any good bits (maybe the material was great, maybe you started well) and work out how you could have handled the situation differently when it started to go downhill.

I recognise, however, that this might not always be enough. Your self-criticism may not even be linked to a particular incident, you just have this feeling that you’re worthless, stupid, unpopular or whatever. This is where the next three strategies come in.

2. Distance yourself from it

Suppose you keep thinking to yourself “I’m so stupid”. All that is is a thought. It exists only as a thought. So progressively distance yourself from it by following a sequence such as:

  • I’m so stupid
  • I think I’m so stupid
  • I’m having the thought that I’m so stupid
  • I notice I’m having the thought that I’m so stupid

Eventually the thought loses some of its power. There is a ‘you’ observing this thought that is somehow separate from the ‘you’ that is doing the criticising or the ‘you’ that is being criticised.

3. Play with it 

If you accept that your self-criticism is a thought that has too much of a grip on you, then try playing around with it until you take it less seriously. Say it in different voices – Minnie Mouse vs Brian Blessed, for example. Morgan Falkner sang Slow it right down until you can barely make out the words. Repeat the word or phrase quickly, over and over again, until it stops meaning anything and just becomes a sound. Put it to music, preferably something upbeat. The phrase “I’m so stupid”, incidentally, fits absolutely perfectly to the tune of “I feel pretty” from West Side Story, a song so optimistic you’ll almost certainly feel better, no matter what words you sing. The aim here is to take some of the sting out of it by laughing in spite of yourself, not at yourself.

4. Question it

If you read my blog a few months ago about the surprising dangers of positive thinking, you’ll know not to waste your time trying to counteract your inner critic with positive affirmations, such as “I believe in my own intelligence” or “I am a very smart person”. They’re actually likely to make you feel worse.  Part of the reason is that they address the issue in a binary way – you’re either stupid or not stupid, unlovable or lovable, unpopular or popular and so on. This kind of sweeping generalisation isn’t helpful.

Research suggests that turning statements into questions is much more powerful and effective way of working with self-criticism. So instead of “I’m stupid”, turn it into “Am I stupid?”. Then broaden the questions out – “How am I stupid?”, “When am I not stupid?”, “What do I mean by stupid?”, “How could I feel less stupid?” and so on. Mull over the answers and see where your curiosity and creativity take you. It’s bound to be more productive than an inner tussle of “I’m stupid/no I’m not”.

If you’d like some support handling self-criticism or other issues that are holding you back at work, do get in touch:

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Angry woman: kalavinka

Worried little boy: Lotus Carroll

Woman singing:  Penn State


Not so bad after all? Rethinking negative thinking

Last month I wrote about the surprising downsides of positive thinking. This month I want to flip that around and consider four reasons we might want to change our perspective on negative thinking.

1. You’re going to do it anyway

Cast your mind back to the last time you were worried about something. If someone had told you to stop worrying (and maybe someone did) would you have ceased immediately? I doubt it.  polar-bearWe don’t have that much conscious control over our thoughts. Just as a little experiment, try not thinking about a polar bear for a minute. A big, white, majestic polar bear. Don’t think about it. Not that easy, is it? We can’t just will our thoughts away.

2. Negative thoughts can be helpful

Positivity and optimism are lovely qualities and often a joy to be around. But they’re not always that helpful. I recently heard a radio interview with a man who’d spent his career as a safety supervisor on North Sea oil rigs. An extremely dour Scotsman, he probably wasn’t a wow at parties. But if I was going to an oil rig, I’d be reassured to know that its – and my – safety had been entrusted to someone who constantly thinks “what else could go wrong?”.  This is known as ‘defensive pessimism‘ and it can be a useful strategy. If I’m ever unlucky enough to need brain surgery, I’d hope for a pessimistic neurosurgeon, as they’re apparently the most successful. And the best psychotherapists combine a mix of self-doubt and self-compassion – in other words, they worry about whether they’ve been doing the best they can but don’t beat themselves up if they decide that they haven’t.

3. Too much harmony is dangerous

If you picture a well-functioning team, you probably imagine a group of people focused on a common goal, working harmoniously, all pulling in the same direction. This sounds great but it has its downsides. If you’re over about 40 you may recall the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster, when the spacecraft catastrophically broke apart just after take-off. TeamEngineers will tell you that the cause was the failure of an O-ring seal. Psychologists will tell you that the cause was the team dynamics. This was a good, cohesive team, all highly motivated to (literally) get the project off the ground. Concerns about the O-ring were well known but no one mentioned them. Nobody wanted to be the one who derailed the project and, if none of their colleagues had said anything, well then maybe it wasn’t that serious anyway.

To counter this, some teams working on high stakes projects hold a ‘pre-mortum’, where instead of working out what went wrong once it’s too late, they try to flush out potential problems while there is a chance to do something about them. The fact that it’s all hypothetical seems to give people permission to voice issues they might otherwise keep quiet about.

4. Negative thoughts and feelings are telling you something

It’s not generally comfortable to experience so-called negative emotions like anger, fear or shame but they serve a purpose. They tell you something about what is going on in your world. Anger tells you that something is definitely not the way you think it should be; fear that you may be at risk and shame that you may have violated the norms of society. Often these emotions are entirely appropriate. Without anger, we might still have a slave trade and women wouldn’t get to vote. I rather hope that Mike Ashley feels enough shame about running Sports Direct like a Victorian workhouse to make amends, though I’m not holding my breath.

Sometimes, of course, these emotions are out of proportion. If you are triggered to murderous rage because someone cuts you up at a roundabout or got served before you at the bar, then clearly that emotion is not a reliable guide as to how to respond to the world. But it is telling you something; it is data.  If you have enough self-awareness to stop yourself acting out your anger, then, rather than trying to suppress it – “I shouldn’t get this angry” – it can be worth looking at what it’s telling you about your inner world. What is triggering this level of reaction? What does it mean for you if people don’t behave exactly as you think they should? What are you making it mean about you? The same kind of exploration is useful with other disproportionate responses, such as feeling fear, anxiety or embarrassment in situations which do not really warrant them.

Of course, the granddaddy of negative thinking is self-criticism and that’s a big enough topic that I’m going to save it for next time. In the meantime, I hope that the negative thoughts that will inevitably pop into your mind over Christmas – “Will these visitors ever go home?”; “I don’t think he really liked that present I chose so carefully”; “I’m bored now”; “Oh no, someone’s mentioned Brexit in front of Uncle Bob” – are far outweighed by positive ones.

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Polar bear:  Maia C

Team: Creative Sustainability

Positive thinking – a quick route to failure?

Positive thinking – it’s a good thing, right? Whether we’re talking about a traditional British “Chin up old chap, look on the bright side” or a 21st century, social media motivational quote – “Find a place inside yourself where nothing is impossible” – it’s all, well, positive, isn’t it? Well, actually, no; it turns out isn’t. Here are three examples of positive thinking that could, in fact, be counter-productive:

1. Believe in yourself – you can be anything you want to be

No. You can’t. You can certainly aspire to be anything you want and you can give it a damn good go. But that doesn’t guarantee you’ll make it. © Copyright 2012 CorbisCorporationWith enough practice, I might learn to sing and dance but I’m under no illusion that I’d ever have what it takes to star in a West End musical. That’s not because I don’t believe in myself enough. It’s because I’ve got a realistic assessment of my ability.

Most of the kids who aspire to play sport for their country or be an astronaut or become Prime Minister won’t make it, no matter how much they believe in themselves or how hard they try. Hard work and dedication are important but they’re not enough if you don’t have the talent. Luck also plays a part – you may not get to be Prime Minister if your party is out of power for a decade, for example. And let’s not pretend that you and your aspirations exist in isolation from the rest of society with its in-built advantages and conscious and unconscious biases. Pity the poor kid who dreams of being an urban rapper but is burdened by going to Eton.

Aspiration is a great thing. I wish I’d had more of it in my lower middle class, know-your-place, get-a-safe-job childhood. But what kind of disappointment are we setting people – especially children – up for, if we encourage them to believe they can achieve anything, rather than they can aim to achieve anything.

2. You are a remarkable human being

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but you probably aren’t. By definition, most of us are average at most things, we just don’t like to accept it. One study of American drivers, for example, found that 93% of them thought they were in the top 50% of drivers, which, even if your numeracy is below average, you’ve probably realised is a statistical impossibility. Even if you’re brilliant at some things, you’ll be average at lots of others. Usain Bolt may be the fastest man in the world, but I’d be fairly confident taking him on at Scrabble.

That’s not really the problem here, though.Man in mirror No, the problem is that people turn to statements like these when they need to boost their self-esteem. Self-help gurus often suggest positive affirmations to develop confidence. But if you’ve resorted to standing in front of a mirror saying “I am a remarkable person” it’s because you don’t actually believe it. Some inner voice is likely to pipe up and contradict your affirmation – “No I’m not. I work in call centre in Swindon and play badminton at the weekend”. The evidence suggests that positive affirmations make people with low self-esteem feel worse, not better.

3. Visualise your goals

So let’s be clear, I’m not talking about the kind of ‘visualise it and the universe will provide’, cosmic re-ordering espoused by Noel Edmonds because I find that hard to take seriously. If only the people of Aleppo focused just a bit harder, eh Noel?

No, I mean the slightly less New Age idea of visualising your goals to psyche yourself up to achieve them – visualising where your business will be in a year,woman-winning imagining yourself giving a fantastic presentation, getting a really clear picture of hitting the perfect shot at that tricky 9th hole. Some of this is useful. It helps to be clear what you’re aiming for; you’re more likely to spot opportunities which are aligned with your goals.

Visualisation is also useful for mental rehearsal. You really can improve your golf swing just by imagining it. One of the mantras of the self-help movement is that your brain can’t distinguish between reality and something you vividly imagine and this is, at least partly, true. However, no one ever tells you there’s a downside. If you have a goal in mind but have not attained it yet, there’s a tension which drives you to achieve. But if you vividly imagine all the positive feelings you’ll feel when you reach this goal, your brain thinks you’ve done it. You relax, some of that drive dissipates and you are actually less likely to achieve your goal.

So positive thinking really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe that’s a relief to you. If your glass is permanently half empty and you don’t find positive thinking easy, next month will be a real treat –  the underrated benefits of negative thinking. Well I say ‘a real treat’; obviously, most things aren’t that good, are they? I’m mean, don’t get your hopes up but it might be worth reading just in case. What’s the worst that can happen?

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Positive thinking:  Corbis Corporation

Man in the mirror: tschundler

Woman winning: Feedough | Dreamstime Stock Photos &Stock Free Images

Can you be a nice leader?

A little while ago, someone sent me an article from the Havard Business Review about the dangers of hiring a nice CEO. Blog photo interviewI found I had quite a strong reaction just to the title. I know a number of nice, decent, successful CEOs, MDs and other leaders in senior positions and was primed to leap to their defence. Were they suggesting hiring a nasty CEO instead? (Spoiler alert – no they weren’t).


The dangers of hiring a nasty leader

The dangers of hiring a toxic leader are well-documented and, to my mind, outweigh the risks of being too nice. In fact, I wouldn’t dignify the ‘take no prisoners/rule by fear’ approach with the term leadership. Leadership implies that people willingly follow you. The best that the tyrant manager can hope for is grudging, resentful compliance. People don’t put themselves out for this kind of boss and anyone with marketable skills and a modicum of self-confidence (i.e. the type of people you want to keep) will look for alternative employment as soon as they can. So if nobody wants a nasty boss, what’s wrong with a nice one?

What do we mean by nice?

The dangers the HBR article highlighted about nice leaders were:

  • Being unable to say no and taking on too much
  • Finding it hard to give difficult feedback, so not addressing poor performance
  • Avoiding conflict and over-prioritising consensus and team harmony

These could all suggest someone who cares about people too much. The soft, caring manager who wants people to be happy and goes out of their way not to upset anyone. It’s a pattern you may recognise, in others or perhaps in yourself. I certainly see it in people I coach and in aspects of myself.

Who are we really concerned about?

But let’s look a little more closely, and more honestly, at what’s really going on here. Too often what is presented as a concern for others is actually a concern for ourselves Annoyed– a fear of not being liked or of people being angry with us. “I don’t want to upset people” often means “I don’t want people to be angry that I upset them”. Sometimes we care more about what people think of us than we genuinely care about the people themselves.

This idea about being too nice is not actually about an excess of empathy. It’s really about a lack of emotional robustness, something I’ve written about here before. Emotional robustness involves being able to maintain a positive sense of yourself and a calm emotional state, even when you’re not getting the response you want from others. Incidentally, don’t think that nasty managers are more emotionally robust than nice ones. They are often hugely concerned with how others see them, they just have a different priority. For them, it’s more important to be seen as powerful, shrewd and in control than to be liked. You only have to look at Donald Trump to see what happens when someone’s sense of himself as a powerful winner is threatened.

People-focused vs results-focused

A criticism often thrown at nice leaders is that they care more about people than results. They end up tolerating mediocrity because they don’t want to hurt people. This is actually the hallmark of leaders too afraid of what others think of them to tackle the things they know they should tackle. For me a good leader – whom I might easily call nice – is one who cares about people and cares about the performance of the organisation, but is less concerned with personal popularity (or indeed proving that they are number one). Popularity is often a bi-product of this kind of leadership, not a motivation for it.

Too good to be true?

It sounds like a tall order and this type of leadership does require a level of emotional maturity that not all of us achieve. But it does exist. Lots of people manage it some of the time and some people manage it a lot of the time. inspiring-speakerThe best example I ever met was a man I shall call Jim. Jim is an industry-leader in turning around failing manufacturing plants. He has a tried-and-tested way of doing this and his standards are exacting. People are left under no illusion that they will raise their game or there will be consequences. So far, he probably sounds like a demanding and not particularly nice leader. But Jim is also one of the warmest, most down-to-earth people you could hope to meet. In feedback from the shopfloor to management, he is described as “inspirational”. Trade unionists rally to his cause. People confide in him, even cry on his shoulder. His message, essentially, is “We can do this together”. People believe in him and begin to believe in – and expect more from – themselves. What he never focuses on is whether or not they like him. He’s just authentically himself, using his judgement to decide what he thinks is the right course of action, not the one with least resistance.

We can’t all aspire to be Jim, but we can try to be a bit more Jim-like.  You could start by being honest with yourself about your real motivation if you find yourself thinking “but I don’t want to upset him/her/them”. If you’re looking to grow as a leader and would like some support to develop your ‘inner Jim’, do get in touch:

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Annoyed: Bark

Inspiring speaker:  National Renewable Energy Lab


“Maybe you should see a psychologist”

“Maybe you should see a psychologist”. Has anyone ever suggested this to you? psychologistIf they did, would you see it as a positive suggestion or would you be affronted, as if they were implying that all was not right in your head? It’s tricky, isn’t it? A bit of a taboo subject.

Recently,  I’ve had a few conversations with people who’ve said they think it would be helpful if their colleague/client/boss/friend talked to me but they don’t know quite how to broach the subject. Let’s be clear here, I’m talking about work-related issues. I’m neither a psychotherapist nor a clinical psychologist. I don’t delve deeply into people’s childhood trauma or diagnose mental health issues. But I, and lots of psychologists like me, often work with people grappling with issues such as:

  • Personality (or, perhaps, shadow side of personality) characteristics that are holding them back.
  • Behaviour that is causing problems with working relationships.
  • Childhood experiences that have left them less confident than they would like.
  • Personal or domestic crises that mean they are struggling to hold it all together at work.
  • The legacy of negative work experiences that have left them over-cautious and unable to fulfill their potential for fear of being slapped down again.
  • A move to a bigger job that makes them feel out of their depth but afraid of admitting that they don’t always know what they’re doing.

These are situations any of us could face and are part of normal working life. But they are in the territory of ‘stuff going on in your head’. They can be messy and embarrassing and people often don’t like talking about them. So, if you’re watching someone struggle with these kinds of things and genuinely want to help, how do you bring up this sensitive subject? Well here are a few pointers.

Problem? What problem?


Firstly, establish whether or not the person recognises that they may have a problem. You may have noticed that they’ve alienated half the office or that they look more tense and stressed out every time you see them, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ve admitted it to themselves.

Suggesting any kind of solution to someone who doesn’t know they have a problem is about as useful as trying to sell a lawnmower to a man with no garden. This is not the time to helpfully hand them the details of your favourite psychologist. As I discussed in a previous article, the aim at this stage is to get the person to be more open to the idea that all may not be well. What’s needed is a genuinely supportive approach with lots of open questions, lots of listening and maybe some gentle feedback. For example, “I can’t help noticing that you seem a bit stressed out at the moment. How’s everything going?” (Not, you notice, “Is everything ok?”. That kind of closed question gives people the option to just say “yeah fine” and the conversation stops dead).

I can handle it…


If the person does recognise there’s an issue but insists they can handle it on their own, well, maybe they’re right and it’s time to back off. broodingBut if you sense that, rather than actually handling it, they’re bottling stuff up and hoping it all goes away, then maybe some gentle encouragement may be appropriate.

Anything you can do to make talking things through with a professional seem like a normal, sensible thing to do, rather than an admission of weakness, will help. If you have ever used a psychologist, a coach or a counsellor yourself, then maybe share that with them. You don’t have to go into details but you might normalise it for the other person if you disclose that you once found it useful to get some perspective on stuff by talking it over with someone.

If you haven’t ever used a psychologist, then be careful not to inadvertently give the impression that you think it would be really useful for them, not that you’d ever need one yourself, heaven forbid, no, you’re totally sane, but they, well, they might need some extra help……. It’s all too easy to reinforce the message you’re trying to avoid.

The shrink will see you now…..


There are, of course, many excellent coaches out there who could help people address some of these issues. Seeing a ‘coach’ may be more acceptable for some people than seeing a ‘psychologist’. Like many business psychologists, I sometimes describe myself as a leadership or executive coach, because that’s part of what I do. But fundamentally, I’m a psychologist who coaches and I don’t want to pretend that the psychology isn’t there. A psychologist has a different educational background and theoretical framework to draw on and can generally work at a deeper level.

I’m aware, of course, of people’s reactions to psychologists. I do a lot of networking and when I introduce myself as a business psychologist, there is generally a pause while people rearrange their faces to neutral, in case they’re giving something away. shrinkI’m not po-faced about this; humour is a great way of making psychology (and psychologists) more accessible. In on-line discussions psychologists trade stories about how to answer the inevitable question “Are you reading my mind?”. My favourite is “Yes, but I’m afraid that under the Data Protection Act, I’m not allowed to reveal the results”. (Honestly, we’re not reading your minds. And there’s no couch).

If you’re suggesting to someone that they might want to see a psychologist, then humour might be a really appropriate way of lightening the tone. But don’t overdo it. I recall once standing in the middle of an open plan office about to go into a meeting room with a new client, when a former client from the same organisation popped up. “Ooh”, he declared in his broad Yorkshire accent, “you’re seeing the shrink. Has she made you cry yet?”. Perhaps not the best start.

If you’re trying to figure out how to broach a conversation like this with someone, I’m happy to talk it through with you. And if you’re grappling with issues at work, why wait for a concerned colleague to nudge you in the direction of help. I’m just a click away:

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Psychologist: Drew Leavy

Brooding: rippchenmitkraut66

Shrink:  Mike Renlund


Psychology snippets – four things you’ll be discussing at the water cooler

It’s August. You’re probably on holiday or wishing you were. In the press, this is the season where traditionally the quirkier stories get an airing, so I thought I’d do the same here. These are the four most interesting bits of psychological research or thinking that I’ve seen in the last few months:

1. How quickly should you answer emails?

It depends on your status, according to a piece of psychological research. Imagine you’re collaborating on a project and someone asks for ideas. laptopIf you don’t have much status in the group, e.g. you’re quite junior or inexperienced, you need to get in quickly, else your ideas will be dismissed. People seem to think you don’t care enough about the project. If you have high status, on the other hand, the longer you leave it, the more seriously people take your ideas. You’re so important that you must be really busy, so when you finally share your wisdom, it must be worth waiting for. Naturally, it doesn’t actually follow that the senior/experienced person’s ideas are any better than the new kid’s, regardless of when they’re delivered, but that’s how we seem to perceive them. No one said life was fair; I’m just the messenger.

2. Three jobs that don’t exist now but will within a decade

You probably won’t have missed the fact that robots are going to take over the workplace, as it’s been all over the papers. robotThe BBC website even features a useful app which will tell you the likelihood of your job being taken over by a robot (bank clerks and chartered accountants might want to consider retraining as speech therapists and psychologists).

But optimists point out that new jobs will emerge that we can’t imagine now. After all, 25 years ago we didn’t know what a web designer or a search engine optimisation specialist was, but now you’re as likely to meet them at a networking event as the more traditional professionals, like lawyers and accountants. So with the introduction of artificial intelligence into the work place, look out for these opportunities:

Robot personality designer – some of the first jobs likely to be taken over by robots are in customer service. They are already being used as hotel receptionists. But if a robot is going to represent a company’s brand, then what sort of personality should it have? Do you want ‘Good afternoon madam’ professionalism or ‘Hi there’ informality? Someone will have to design that.

Morality programmer – how do we ensure that robots will behave in a way that we deem ethically correct? If we violate the norms of society, we can be held to account, up to and including prosecution. But you can’t prosecute a robot, so someone will need to programme in codes of conduct or ensure a way of teaching the robot what is appropriate behaviour (“Save the baby, not the budgie, in an emergency”). Finally, a job crying out for philosophy graduates.

Robot – human facilitator – the future workplace will be all about collaboration between robots and humans. Robot and peopleBut that’s not just going to happen automatically. The technology is moving much more quickly than our ability to keep pace with it psychologically. There will be trust issues and resentment and our trademark British awkwardness – “What’s the etiquette here? Do I shake its hand?” Expect a plethora of training and facilitation consultants to help us get used to working in this brave new world.


3. The subliminal response that predicts your political tendencies.

If you read my Brexit blog, you’ll have come across this already, but I found it so fascinating I thought it worth repeating. Researchers can predict with 95% accuracy where you sit on the liberal-conservative spectrum (on social issues) based how strongly you react to something disgusting, like rotting meat or bodily waste.  The stronger your disgust reflex, the more conservative you tend to be. Liberals are less easily disgusted. Given that your disgust reflex is not really under your conscious control and may be hard-wired, it raises the possibility that your political leanings could have a genetic component. So much for free will.

4. Which is your best side, photographically?

Suppose you’re having a profile photo taken for Linked In or your corporate website, take a tip from a this psychological research and turn your left cheek to the camera. PortraitAs unlikely as it sounds, your left cheek is likely to be more attractive than your right one. We process emotion on the right side of our brains, which controls the left side of bodies, and apparently that means we display ever so slightly more emotion on the left, which people find more attractive. I’m not sure what happens if the emotion you’re displaying is boiling rage or withering contempt, so perhaps it would be best to get into a happy frame of mind before you’re ready for your close up.

Next month, the holidays will be over and it’ll be back to serious work-related stuff, but for now enjoy the tail end of summer.

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Lap top: Hillary

Robot: e-lame

Robot and people:  Moto “Club4AG” Miwa

Portrait: Chung Shao Tung


The age of female leadership?

Well isn’t this interesting – women are taking over the world. Merkel & MayWe have a female Prime Minister, the most powerful politician in Europe is a woman and I can’t be the only one fervently hoping that the next US president is a woman because the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate. But will things be any different? Do women bring different qualities to the job? Instinctively, it feels like they do, but is that true? 

Well the short answer is, we don’t really know. The research is somewhat contradictory and it’s a complex thing to assess. What is clear is that female leaders are perceived differently.

The problem of categorisation

In order to know how to respond to something, we have to recognise it and categorise it – ‘ah yes, I’ve seen one of these before; it’s like this’. Because it’s the norm, the category ‘male leader’ doesn’t narrow it down enough, so we subdivide it. Thus Jeremy Corbyn is the UK’s Bernie Sanders – elderly white lefties with non-mainstream ideas who’ve mobilised a lot of young people. The connection can be much more tenuous. For a while, Chuka Umunna was the British Barack Obama, presumably on the grounds that they’re both mixed race, cooler than the average politician and in possession of unfamiliar but reassuringly pronounceable names. 

For female leaders, the category is much smaller, so we can start recognising them from existing templates straightaway. So of course, inevitably, Theresa May is the new Margaret Thatcher, unless you want to be more contemporary, in which case she is Britain’s Angela Merkel. That’ll be the Angela Merkel who is Germany’s Maggie Thatcher. This isn’t about how Thatcherite they are in their politics. Even Nicola Sturgeon – someone at the opposite end of the political spectrum – has been compared with ThatcherIt’s a short cut. Female, (late) middle-aged, pastel-coloured suit, no-nonsense approach? Yeah, a bit like Thatcher.

We’re not gender blind

The concept of leadership style is so bound up with who we are as people that it cannot be disentangled from gender. I have no idea how Theresa May’s leadership style actually compares with that of Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel. She may operate in a way that is more similar to say, Michael Heseltine or Gordon Brown but I’m never going to find myself making that comparison. It just doesn’t compute (be clear, I’m talking about leadership style, not policies, here). 

Even if they said and did exactly the same things, I would probably perceive a male and a female leader differently. BlindfoldedI’d like to believe that that wasn’t true but I’ve read enough about unconscious bias to know that we take short cuts and are influenced by factors we are barely aware of, such as the pitch of someone’s voice. Behaviour that is seen as appropriately assertive in a man, may be perceived as ‘bossy’ (a word never used about any male over the age of 10) in a woman. Conversely, caring, empathetic behaviour, which is expected in women, may be seen as weak in a man. 

So given these differences in how men and women are perceived, it’s actually difficult to gauge whether men and women differ significantly in their leadership styles. There are, however, four things we can say with confidence about women as leaders, based on solid research in business and elsewhere.

1. Female leaders are more risk averse

And this may not always be a bad thing. 

Women seem to be less prone to over-confidence than men and more cautious in their approach to risk, particularly financial risk. This may have advantages for organisations, providing a counter-balance to more gung ho male leaders. There’s a possibility that testosterone may account for some of the difference between male and female risk tolerance, with psychologists suggesting that at least some of the financial crash could have been averted if the financial services sector had been less dominated by young men.

Of course, for women themselves, there’s a downside; their caution can hold them back in their careers. Caroline Arnold, who specialises in coaching up-and-coming women mid-career says that women are more likely to ensure that they can cover every aspect of a job description before applying for the job. As she points out, if you can already do every element of the job, it’s probably your current job. There’s no stretch, nothing to grow into. She’s constantly encouraging women to be bolder. 

2. Female leaders are necessary

This isn’t a political statement or a manifesto based on a desire for equality; it’s a pragmatic reality. Companies with a strong element of female leadership financially outperform those without it. That’s not one token non-exec, by the way. Team of Young Business ExecutivesIt’s three or more female board members or a female CEO and at least one other female director. These companies’ success is attributed to the fact that they are likely to be forward thinking and open to different perspectives.

There are also implications for corporate governance. Perhaps because of women’s tendency towards risk aversion, companies with more female leaders are less likely to be involved in scandals such as bribery, corruption, fraud or shareholder battles. Additionally, although they are less likely to take financial risk, women are more likely to take social risk, such as speaking up about something they disagree with.

3. Female leaders are as effective as men 

Or maybe even more so. A number of studies, looking at thousands of 360 degree feedback responses, have shown that female leaders tend to be rated more positively than their male colleagues, by everyone except themselves. Although some studies, suggest that this doesn’t apply in very masculine environments, such as the military, a study focused on business leaders found women were rated particularly strongly in traditionally male-dominated areas, such as IT, R&D and legal.

There are several suggestions for this. One is that women may have a more inclusive, collaborative leadership style that is more suited to the 21st-century work environment than the traditional command-and-control style, which it’s assumed comes more naturally to men. There’s mixed evidence on whether women leaders actually do behave differently, though.

Another factor is that, whilst a lot of very talented men make it to senior positions, so do rather a lot of average ones. It’s rare, however, for an average woman to make it that far. So the data is comparing a smaller number of highly talented women with a larger number of both talented and fairly average chaps, which skews the figures.

4. Female leaders are sometimes set up to fail

Ironically, given their propensity to be more risk averse, women are more likely to be given leadership positions when the situation is perilous and there is a high risk of failure. This is known as the ‘glass cliff’ effect – similar to the glass ceiling, but rather than being an invisible barrier, it’s an invisible career-killer. Women are more likely to be hung out to dry if it all goes wrong.

This makes the current political situation very interesting and also worrying. No one would argue that we’re living in a period of dull predictability. My fear is that we’ll look back in 5 years, at what might have been an uncomfortable time, forget the context and say ‘well we tried having women in charge and look how bad it was. Better let men take the reins back’.

Regardless of politics, I’m really hoping Theresa May is seen as successful for the sake of female leaders to come.


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Photo credits

May & Merkel: No 10

Blindfolded: marsmettn tallahassee