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3 Ways to Use Civility to Help Women Leaders Overcome Negative Self-Talk

women talking in office

Most leadership advice is outward-facing. Women leaders are told they need to exhibit resilience, innovation and collaboration to reach their potential. But no amount of those traits will help women leaders overcome their greatest challenge: their own inner critic, with its relentless stream of negative self-talk. To transform their culture, organizations need to help their women leaders cultivate self-awareness and engage in civil dialogues that foster a collaborative attitude.

Women executives frequently grapple with the desire to prove themselves in male-dominated environments. “Proving your value” is one of the seven fundamental hurdles women leaders face. This desire to prove one’s worth can lead to heightened stress, burnout and a persistent sense of imposter syndrome, all fueled by the negative self-talk created by the inner critic. When organizations support leaders in developing self-awareness, leaders can spend less energy on proving their individual value and more on increasing the value of the organization.

Negative self-talk refers to the internal dialogue characterized by self-doubt, criticism and feelings of inadequacy. It often stems from societal norms, past experiences or internalized beliefs about gender roles and abilities. 

For women leaders, negative self-talk can manifest as doubts about competence, fear of failure, or pressure to conform to unrealistic standards. It can also lead to self-sabotaging behavior. “What you think and feel drives what you say and do,” says Shannon Bayer, principal consultant and senior director at SHRM.

Thankfully, the process of overcoming negative self-talk doesn’t have to begin and end with the individual. There are three steps organizations can take to support leaders during this transformation.

Promote Psychological Safety: Establishing a culture of psychological safety is essential for fostering open and honest dialogue about internal challenges, including negative self-talk, and that begins with promoting civility throughout the organization. Create safe spaces where women leaders feel comfortable expressing concerns, seeking feedback and sharing experiences without fear of judgment or reprisal. This can be achieved through inclusive communication practices, empathy training and civility-focused leadership development programs that prioritize emotional intelligence and vulnerability.

Provide Personal Guidance: Offering one-on-one engagement through civil dialogue can help women leaders develop the self-awareness and resilience needed to address their inner critic effectively. By pairing women with experienced coaches, mentors or sponsors, organizations can provide valuable guidance, perspective and support as these leaders navigate their personal and professional challenges. These relationships can serve as a forum for honest dialogue, reflection and growth, empowering leaders to overcome their inner critic and thrive in their roles.

Offer Leadership Development Tailored to Women: Organizations looking to empower women to recognize and manage their negative self-talk should build and support leadership development strategies that are specifically focused on women’s unique needs. The most effective leadership development programs provide opportunities for women leaders to engage in civil dialogue about their internal challenges and empower them to overcome their inner critic collectively.

SHRM’s approach to the advancement of women leaders is informed by thousands of data points from assessments of leading organizations and includes tailored learning experiences specifically focused on empowering groups of women leaders at organizations with the competencies required to overcome common hurdles to advancement. This unique approach combines higher-level insights that empower organizations to target the areas most impactful when it comes to moving the needle for women in the workplace. It also enables organizations to reach their women leaders through ready-now offerings including assessments, facilitated programming and the Women in Leadership Institute.  

Negative self-talk and the desire to prove oneself are formidable challenges that many executives face in their professional journey. However, women can navigate these obstacles with resilience and confidence by cultivating self-awareness, challenging limiting beliefs, practicing self-compassion, setting realistic expectations and building a supportive network. When organizations embrace civility, they empower leaders to redirect their energy away from negative self-talk and toward critical business goals.


Fortune 500 companies rely on the Women in Leadership Institute to advance their women leaders. Explore their stories.



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