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The pitfalls of self-conscious staff

"I know that problem," he sighed, my successful entrepreneurial friend who's headed up some of South Africa's leading e-commerce organisations. We were catching up at a wedding on how our work was going, and I had mentioned what I believed to be a problem some managers find with specific staff.
The challenge I shared was about self-conscious team members. I've coached many people to overcome their self-consciousness, because they realised that it was holding them back from contributing - especially in meetings.

The results of them not speaking up were often that they then went to their managers after the meeting, to share their knowledge or opinion, and the managers were asking them why they hadn't shared that key information earlier, before decisions were made on the way forward.

Often, their strategy to overcome this was the excuse that they hadn't remembered that information at the time, or that after thinking more on the topic they only came up with the idea after the meeting.

Fearful of speaking up

Yet, to me, their coach, they confided how they knew they should have spoken up earlier, yet were so fearful of speaking up and having everyone focus their attention on them (which usually resulted in them blushing uncontrollably or experiencing a rash on their necks) that they froze and shrunk back within themselves. Most of them would remain silent and just go along with the team's idea, and only a few would resolve to rather speak one-on-one with the manager after the meeting.

What a waste of potential

"I've seen that happen before," continued my friend, "and it's quite frustrating".

Not only does this waste time, but the frustration comes from the managers knowing that these staff members have value to contribute (that's why they were hired in the first place) yet not experiencing them as contributing that value. Never mind the awkwardness that they feel as the staff members turn bright red every time they are asked to contribute.

Demanding these people to speak up in meetings doesn't help - it just turns up the pressure they feel to perform, which further exaggerates the problem. And so the unproductive cycle continues.

Points to know about self-consciousness

  • It's a learned behaviour: Self-consciousness is often confused with shyness - yet they are not the same. Often people who are shy develop self-conscious ways of thinking and, thus, behaving, because of experiences when they were put on the spot and asked: "Why are you so quiet?" Yet a lot of quiet people labelled as 'shy' are still able to express themselves, and often it's profound when they do.
    I say that self-consciousness is not a personality trait, as it involves way of thinking that resulted usually from a bad experience of speaking up in a group format.

  • It can be overcome: And because it is just a way of thinking, it can be overcome. People who feel they suffer from self-consciousness can learn the strategy of self-awareness and self-confidence, and, thus, they are able to experience those empowering states more often. They then have the tools to interrupt the self-consciousness and change their way of being and expressing themselves.

  • It's about focus: One of the key elements in the change of thinking is about becoming aware of where they put their focus. When in a self-conscious state, the person's focus is entirely on himself and the over-generalisation that he believes that "everyone is looking at me and judging me". It's called the spotlight effect in psychology, and people find it threatening to experience all the attention being placed on them.
    The more useful strategy is to learn to focus their attention on their message - on what it is they want to say and on how others understand their point, as that takes the perceived spotlight off them, and onto the point being discussed.

  • The underlying cause is other esteem: Part of the mindset needed to overcome the spotlight effect is also understanding that their self-esteem is not linked to their opinion. Their opinion is just an expression of them, and is the way they can add value to the meeting or objective of the organisation.

    Self-conscious people tend to misunderstand the concept of self-esteem, and rather have 'other esteem' -which is they base their sense of worth on the opinions others have of them. Thus, they find it so threatening to be in any situation where they perceive that their value will be judged by what they do or say. This triggers their lower brain functions of fight or flight, and they don't have access to the higher brain capacity to think rationally through the moment.

    Thus learning that their self-esteem is an unconditional given - they have inherent value and life is about expressing that value thorough what they do - they can then stop feeling like they have to prove their value, and thus can focus on adding their value instead. Especially in meetings.

    Overcoming self-consciousness is actually quite easy once you know how, and it leads to individuals dropping the 'self' and just becoming 'conscious' of the task at hand. This frees up their energy to contribute, by expressing their inner potential.
  • About Telana Simpson

    Telana helps bright, talented people have no regrets in life by being able to have the conversations that count.

    Read more: management, leadership