Most humans have an internal dialog going on, and it’s rather easy for negative self-talk to creep its way in. We tend to be harder on ourselves internally than we would be to anyone else, and we can easily become burdened and sandbagged by this kind of negativity.

Many studies have shown how self-talk can affect our feelings and our actions, and in turn, psychologists have started to emphasize how important it is to train the brain to improve the tone in which our internal voice speaks to us. The national bestseller Chatter by Ethan Kross dissects why the voice in our head matters and how best to harness it to work for us instead of against us.

A consistent stream of negative, unproductive thinking can begin to influence our emotions, how we feel about ourselves and our efforts, our confidence, and eventually, it can affect the way we act. Essentially, our self-talk matters and can change outcomes in our tangible world. Simply put by Brian Pennie, author, speaker, and recovering addict, who attributes his own negative self-talk to pushing him toward his drug addiction, “When my self-talk shifted, so did my willingness to act.”

Negative Self-Talk in the Workplace

Our own self-talk is important to pay attention to and to deal with, but what about when we see it in other people? If negative self-talk is playing in the background of everyone’s operating system, it no doubt finds its way into the workplace, affecting your team’s performance, morale, and overall culture.

So, how do you identify when this is happening for others? And is there anything you can do about it? Here are a few key things to look out for in those around you to indicate the presence of the unfriendly inner companion of self-sabotaging self-talk.

  • Self-Limiting Speech. Examples may include comments such as, “That’s too complicated for me to figure out”; or, “I don’t have the capacity to deal with that.”
  • Jumping to Conclusions. This could sound like someone saying “I just botched that presentation” right after walking out of a meeting; or, “Jim didn’t say hi to me today, he’s upset with me for something.”
  • Ruminating on the Negative. For example, someone who can’t let small mistakes go or can’t stop talking about how disappointing their recent review was.
  • Over-apologizing or Over-compensating for Mistakes. This shows that someone may be ruminating on their mistake and, internally, that they’re likely beating themselves up about it.
  • Self-Deprecating Humor. This probably shouldn’t always be laughed off. If someone is always throwing punches at themselves, it could be an indicator that their inner dialog is looking for validation of a negative perception they hold of themselves.
  • Catastrophizing. Someone who always jumps to the worst possible outcome may have more negativity swimming around internally than they even realize.

What to Do About It

While, as a leader, your role is not to be a therapist to your team, if you notice that someone’s negative self-talk starts to affect their performance or bring the morale of your team down, it may be appropriate to play a part in combating it.

Below are five key ways you, as a leader, can help shed light on and work against the negative self-talk of your team.

1. Normalize Mistakes as a Part of Growth

It’s easy for people to be hard on themselves when they’ve made an obvious mistake at work. When you recognize someone being particularly negative about their mistake, you can bring an element of psychological safety to your team by reminding them that mistakes are a part of the learning process and by being transparent about mistakes you’ve made and how you have overcome them. Being honest about your professional struggles can normalize the feelings of your employee.

Use yourself as an example: “When I was at your tenure I would get so down on myself when I couldn’t solve the problem quickly … until I researched other ways of dealing with self-doubt.”

2. Limit Expressions of Worry

It’s also helpful to limit expressions of worry about what may happen as a result of an employee’s mistake and keep the focus on solutions and actionable steps to solve for them. Encourage them to talk through their thinking about the problem, and point them toward a solution if they need guidance. This will help shift the focus in a positive direction and hopefully away from their negative self-talk.

3. Make Encouragement a Regular Practice

It’s easy to pick out ways your employees can improve, but to help keep their negative self-talk at a minimum, you can regularly find ways to encourage specific actions or qualities in people that you sense they may be struggling with. If they are feeling poorly about a recent project, you can pick a handful of things you saw them do well and sensitively address any areas that may have gone wrong.

When you do give feedback, the 3:1 rule is helpful– three positive points of feedback to one negative. However, make sure your feedback is always honest, because people have a way of knowing when you use fluff to prime them for a harsher critique.

4. Show Your Trust in Them

You can also encourage your employees by showing you trust them. Avoid micromanaging them in areas they are insecure about and empower them to step up and make decisions where you see fit. You can selectively give them opportunities to

make decisions in these areas to help them see their negative self-talk isn’t right about everything.

5. Bring a New Perspective

When your employees are overly negative about a mistake, ask them: “How would you talk to your colleague who you like and respect if they made a similar mistake? Probably a lot more gently and with more encouragement than you speak to yourself.”

You can also suggest that they do a thought experiment over the course of the challenging project where they speak to themselves as they would someone they cared about and wanted to genuinely motivate.

When you sense negative self-talk in the workplace that begins to take root, seeping into an employee’s actions or demeanor, it can be easy to ignore it or deem it “their problem.” However, if we want to see business become more human for everyone, it’s important to treat our employees as humans who deal with the same inner-dialog many of us have before.