What are self-limiting beliefs?
By Sally C. Woods, Ed.D.
Self-limiting beliefs are a little-discussed topic in the business world. They are rarely mentioned in professional development courses, but they are an important topic at The BB&T Leadership Institute. In fact, self-limiting beliefs are a core subject of our most popular program, Mastering Leadership Dynamics™.
A self-limiting belief is a core negative opinion a person holds about her or himself. This self-defeating thought is often expressed in a statement such as “I’m not right for this job,” “I can’t do this” and “I wish I were smarter.”
All self-limiting beliefs have something in common: the underlying, unconscious notion that “I’m not good enough.” And it isn’t simply “I’m not good enough at X, Y or Z,” but a more sweeping generalization that “I'm stupid” or “I don’t belong.” This toxic internal belief is created when we are children, usually by the age of 6. And while the belief is not a conscious one, it affects our thoughts, emotions and behaviors – and hinders our effectiveness.
We focus on self-limiting beliefs and other unconscious behavior in The Leadership Institute’s Mastering Leadership Dynamics program for CEOs, executives and senior leaders. In Mastering Leadership Dynamics, we work with leaders to develop a deep understanding of themselves, their autopilot leadership patterns and how their behavior affects others. Our objective is to help participants become conscious leaders, so they can better manage their behavior.
Operating on autopilot
Acting on one’s self-limiting beliefs, such as “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t measure up,” is one of executives’ autopilot behaviors. Behaviors triggered by a self-limiting belief are almost uniformly negative. Leaders act defensive. Or they raise their voice and argue their point. Or they get sarcastic with a colleague when that person says something they don’t like. Other leaders withdraw from a situation that tests their confidence. They shut down emotionally and go quiet.
One of the problems with a leader’s self-limiting beliefs is the impact of the resulting behaviors on their team and organization. At The BB&T Leadership Institute, we talk about leadership amplitude, which is how a leader’s behavior is amplified throughout an organization. When a CEO is routinely reactive and defensive, or a senior vice president is sarcastic or raises their voice, that behavior negatively affects employees’ engagement. And business leaders all know lower employee engagement leads to decreased performance, lower retention rates and other symptoms of a dysfunctional workplace.
Choosing the right leadership program can make a huge difference
In Mastering Leadership Dynamics, we introduce a proprietary, in-depth experiential process that helps executives identify their self-limiting beliefs. Executives learn to recognize the impact of the behavior caused by their beliefs. We also help leaders learn how to interrupt the behavior their self-limiting beliefs create and how to act more intentionally and constructively in the moment.
We call this an experiential process because Mastering Leadership Dynamics participants benefit from fully participating in the program’s intensive process, not reading a description of it. For instance, when executives are being reactive or their emotions are inching upward due to their self-limiting beliefs, we coach them to take a breath and ask themselves, “How could I think about this situation differently, reframe it and make it a positive one?” or “What does my mission or purpose call for me to do in this situation?” This helps a leader be more intentional and purposeful. It may seem simple, but can be a challenging task in the moment of being reactive. The bottom line: It’s powerful.
In every Mastering Leadership Dynamics program I’ve participated in – and that’s more than 400 programs – most participants are unaware of their self-limiting beliefs and of these beliefs’ corrosive impact. But after developing an enhanced awareness of themselves, Mastering Leadership Dynamics participants walk away from the program with a set of tools and strategies they can use to interrupt themselves in the moment and act like the conscious leader they want to be.
After completing the Mastering Leadership Dynamics program, the vast majority of the participants we hear from tell us things like “This program has been life-changing for me” and “I understand myself better now and can do something different rather than being reactive or biting someone’s head off.”
One leader had finished Mastering Leadership Dynamics on a Friday. The next Monday morning he called to tell me he met with his team, shared what he had learned about himself, described the improvements he was going to make and the positive impact he intended to have as a result. He told me that interaction with his team was the most profound business experience of his life.
It was professionally gratifying to me that this leader was actively learning to be more purposeful and showing his vulnerability and strengths to his team. In essence, he was saying to them, “I know I have issues to work on, and I have a plan to work on them.” That is a great leadership role model.
Burton, J. (2018). Creating mindful leaders: How to power down, power up, and power forward. Wiley. Hoboken, New Jersey.
Guise, S. (2015). How to be an imperfectionist: The new way to self-acceptance, fearless living, and freedom from perfectionism. Selective Entertainment, LLC. Seattle, Washington.
Tolle, E. (1999). Practicing the power of now. New World Library. Novato, California.
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