Against Self-Deprecation

There is no more beloved coping mechanism among product managers than self-deprecation. It comes naturally in a role that is often defined by extraneousness (“You don’t need a product manager to ship software”) — and when working with a skeptical team, self-deprecation can feel like a good way to build camaraderie and show proper deference.

For much of my career as a product manager, I found myself starting conversations with “Well, I’m just the dumbass product manager, BUT,” or “Hey ha ha yeah guess what? The PRODUCT MANAGER is here to get a stupid deadline in place!” I usually got a few chuckles from the team. I was one of them! I was a cool dude! No need to worry about me!

Then, about a month into a particularly challenging project, I got an email from a developer on my team that genuinely surprised me. He was concerned about the way I had been talking about my own work. He wanted to know, did I really feel that bad about my job? Did I really think that I had nothing to offer? Had he done anything to make me feel like my contributions weren’t valued by the team?

As I started to compose an email back to the tune of “Oh no I actually think I’m doing a pretty good job,” it hit me like a ton of bricks: I had been using self-deprecation as a strategy. Without even realizing it consciously, I had been deploying self-deprecation as a passive-aggressive and insincere way to say “Listen, I really don’t want you to challenge me on this.” It communicated to people on my team that they should feel bad if they pushed back too hard on what I was suggesting. It spared me from having to take responsibility for my own asks and my own needs.

Self-deprecation is often used as a mechanism of social control — and when that mechanism fails, the raw ugliness that lies beneath it can come to the surface pretty fast. Once, a colleague prefaced a specific ask with “Hey, I don’t really know what I’m talking about here, this is just a suggestion” — and within ten minutes of his suggestion going unheeded, had changed his tune to “I’VE MADE MILLIONS OF DOLLARS DOING THIS, I THINK I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.”

Speaking from personal experience, I think that self-deprecation is one way that the bullied learn how to bully. It is a way to exert power over others while maintaining a sense of victimization or martyrdom. The effects it has on a team are subtly chilling and deleterious. And, unfortunately, it often comes as second nature to the folks who are inclined to seek out supportive and facilitative roles like product management.

Here’s a thought exercise I’ve been using to help train myself out of this behavior. If I feel the urge to make a self-deprecating statement, I ask myself: If somebody on my team interrupted me to say “‘Hey, no need for that, you’re doing a great job and we respect your opinion,” would I be relieved or annoyed? If the answer is “relieved,” I try to make time for a one-on-one with at least one member of the team to check in on the project overall and see if there’s anything else I can do to support. If the answer is “annoyed”, then it probably means that I am using self-deprecation as a strategic maneuver to get what I want, and I should spend a bit more time thinking through what I’m asking for and why.

A few years into the practice of avoiding self-deprecation, I’ve had to get much better at directly asking for things from colleagues and teammates. When I start to feel stressed out and overwhelmed, I find myself expressing those feelings in more direct and straightforward ways. More importantly, when the folks I’m working with start to feel stressed out and overwhelmed, they feel comfortable talking to me about it. One a more personal note, I’m finding myself much more comfortable actually making good-natured jokes about the limitations of my own talent and capabilities — making it all too clear that the jokes I made before were not so good-natured after all.