The problem with project management is that you have to work with people, and people are human. Today we’re going to talk about the challenges and opportunities of working with insecure people.
Secure and Insecure People in the Workplace
Secure people have confidence in their intrinsic worth as a human being, their professional skills, their interpersonal skills, their workplace relationships, and their performance to date. Insecure people lack confidence in these areas.
When their opinion is questioned or challenged, secure people are interested and thoughtful, and they listen. They are being presented with a different perspective or interpretation that they have to compare with their existing one to see if there’s new data or an insight they can benefit from. Insecure people tend to interpret the question or challenge as a personal attack and go into a defensive posture in the conversation, immediately pushing back without taking the time to dispassionately consider the other idea and possibly learn from it. This is a key reason that working with insecure people can be so challenging. Insecure people identify themselves too closely with whatever idea they hold currently, fail to objectively consider other ideas that might be better, and tend to dig themselves in emotionally and passionately defending their current idea in situations when upon objective reflection they might realize that the other idea was better. By behaving irrationally and clinging too tightly and too long to non-optimal ideas that objective observers would discard, insecure people can become “sand in the gears” that make it harder for organizations to make decisions and move forward.
Are You Working with an Insecure Co-Worker?
Here are a few hints in my experience that you might be working with an insecure co-worker:
- Do they tend to get upset when their ideas or proposals are questioned or challenged? Does the pitch or volume of their voice rise?
- Do they take a hard position too early in a conversation? Does it become difficult to then gently talk them down from an extreme position they’ve taken early on?
- Do they adopt the ideas or proposals of others less often than other employees? Do they fail to avail themselves of the input and expertise of others?
- Do they fight too long and too hard after it’s obvious that a decision is going to go the other way?
- When preparing for a meeting with them, do you find yourself spending a lot of time thinking about how to avoid triggering their insecurities?
- In meetings with them, do you find yourself having to spend extra time and effort getting to change their mind because you’re focused as much on trying to soothe their feelings as on discussing the objective issues?
Insecure Low Performers
In my experience, seriously insecure people are usually below-average performers in their current role. (I’m not endorsing overbearing arrogance and overconfidence as a preferred alternative!) I’m not sure which is the cause and which is the effect. People who are poor performers may realize it and become understandably insecure about their position, reputation, and prospects within the workplace. Conversely, people with serious issues of psychological insecurity may behave in the workplace in ways that prevent optimal performance and therefore contributes to their being poor performers. Most likely, it’s a vicious cycle in which a person who is insecure has trouble interacting optimally with others in the workplace, which prevents optimal performance, which leads to greater insecurity. This is why early intervention with people who are performing poorly is so important. You may be able to prevent a vicious cycle from setting in before it’s too late.
Insecure High Performers
Some insecure people are extremely high performers. Insecurity can be a powerful driver for extra effort that leads to extra success. They may have made superhuman efforts in their life to overcome some initial disadvantage and have developed skills and behaviors in the process that now make them high performers at work. Perhaps they were born in poverty, came from a troubled home, or experienced some kind of discrimination. Yet even now that they are enormously successful in their career, they may remain deeply insecure about the fears and issues that haunted their early life.
Helping Insecure People Perform Better
When a person has a serious problem that they don’t recognize or aren’t trying to overcome, other people probably can’t fully compensate for the problem’s negative effects. But there are things you can do to try to improve the situation and make the workplace a friendlier, more welcoming place for the insecure co-worker:
- Make a point of praising your co-worker for whatever they do well. This is a good practice in general. It’s particularly important for helping people who lack confidence in themselves and their performance. Inside, they may be desperately seeking validation of their worth as an employee and a person.
- When problems occur, focus on behaviors, not motivations. This is another general best practice. When people behave inappropriately, speak with them in private. Try to acknowledge their feelings and concerns in any way you honestly can. “I know this project is very important to you …” Then, gently talk with them about the negative behavior they displayed, the specific problems it caused, and how you’d like them to act differently in the future. Give them a road map to follow so they aren’t unsure of how they need to change.
- Talk with your manager and your human resources representative. If a person has serious problems, you probably won’t be the only person to notice. Don’t suffer unreasonable or unprofessional behavior in silence; that will cause frustration to build up inside of you and make it harder for you to summon the extra professionalism you need to work with that person in the future. When human resources and management start hearing the same problems reported by people throughout the organization, that will give them the data they need to justify and choose a course of action. The insecure person’s manager can sit down and have a private talk with them reviewing the negative behaviors of concern. The employee could be offered interpersonal skills training. When politely presented with the effects their behaviors are having in the workplace, ideally, the insecure employee will recognize their need for personal growth and will consider options like changing their behavior, counseling, or getting a coach.
- Offer the employee relevant skills training, if possible. If poor performance due to insufficient professional skills is part of the problem, try to identify a training course you can send the employee to that will quickly help them improve their skills in measurable, relevant ways. For example, a person doing product management for the first time could be sent to an introductory product management course by Pragmatic Marketing.
Be realistic in your expectations. The tragedy of insecurity is that having that problem makes it hard for the insecure person to see and admit that they have a problem in the first place. This is not an easy problem to solve. Unfortunately, seriously insecure people sometimes perform so poorly, yet are so resistant to admitting that there’s a problem, that they have to go through a personal crisis like losing a job before they finally become willing to change and seek help.
If You’re Insecure
If you yourself are insecure, don’t panic. Everyone’s human. Recognize a development area is the first step towards making progress on it.
- Don’t take work or ideas personally. It’s not about you, your worth as a human being, or your reputation. It’s about the company pursuing its mission most efficiently and most effective and everyone playing a part in helping out. Your ideas won’t always be the best ones. You won’t always be right. No one is. That’s OK.
- Monitor your emotional state. Watch for clues like the pitch or volume of your voice increasing, your heart rate increasing, or other symptoms of stress. When you detect those, try to defuse the situation. Take a break. Let others talk and just listen. Give yourself some time to calm down. Become more skeptical of your own thinking if you find yourself becoming emotional, because the more emotional you are, the less likely it is that you’re thinking clearly and correctly and able to accurately perceive the best answer.
- If you doubt your effectiveness in your current role, get objective input and work on improving your abilities. Have candid talks in private with your human resources manager and your manager. Explain that you’d like some honest feedback about your performance to date. See what they have to say. By giving them a non-threatening opportunity to talk to you, you may get them to share things they were uncomfortable sharing and learn things you otherwise would not have. Work with them on a plan to improve your performance. If you don’t think you have the skills you need, try to get those skills. Read a book. Take a class. Sign up for training.
- Seek counseling from a licensed professional and/or coaching as appropriate. If you have a deep lack of confidence in yourself and your worth as a human being, or if your self-esteem is based entirely on your professional performance, those are issues worth exploring. You could wind up being happier and more productive and having less conflict in your life.
Working with Imperfect People is a Necessary Skill
If you insisted on only working with perfect people, you’d be sitting alone in a room until somebody came by to point out that you shouldn’t be sitting there either because you’re also not perfect. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. You can help your team by leveraging your strengths, working on your own weaknesses, and trying to gently help others to do the same and compensate a bit where possible for their weaknesses.