Taming Your Inner Critic As A Product Leader

Learning to live with the saboteurs and inner critics inside us all

By Ken Norton

7 min read • Feb 9, 2022

Ken Norton

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We all have self-sabotaging inner voices that work to hold us back. These voices get louder when change is on the horizon. Something new, something different, something unknown? Here comes the chatter. Sometimes called the inner critic, the judge, or saboteur, these forces can produce feelings of shame, anxiety, incompetence, and failure. (I use the term “saboteur” in this article for consistency, but call it whatever you like.)

Even the quirkiest aspects of human biology probably served an evolutionary purpose, and that’s most certainly the case here. These inner conversations kept us safe as we evolved. The saboteur not only helped us survive as an intelligent species but thrive. Our brains are hardwired to resist change at a fundamental level, and the saboteur is its persuasive spokesperson. Our family circumstances, childhoods, traumatic experiences, and external systemic biases further refine these voices. They’re highly skilled at taking a small truth and warping and twisting it until it becomes a compelling argument against whatever action you’re hoping to take. Saboteurs keep track of every reason why you might fail, why you might be incompetent, why the rest of the world is just about to catch on to your ruse. The bigger the dream, the louder they get. They are the self-appointed defenders of the status quo. Why? Because different means danger and the status quo is safety.

You can bet that product leaders hear from their saboteurs daily. As generalists surrounded by specialists, we’re constantly reminded of everything we don’t know. We have to influence and lead without formal authority. As a result, we can feel isolated and lonely. Moreover, the saboteurs lead to imposter syndrome and the limiting beliefs and worries that we consciously and unconsciously obsess over all the time. The bad news? The saboteur will never go away: It’s neuroscience. But we can train ourselves to cope with—and even control—our saboteurs. Here are some evidence-based techniques for dealing with your saboteur.

1. Start with the science

Understanding the neuroscience, psychology, and sociology behind the saboteur will normalize your experience and help you develop a clinical understanding of why it exists. Experimental psychologist Ethan Kross, the founder of the University of Michigan’s Emotion & Self-Control Lab, has spent a career studying these inner voices. His new book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, looks to recent field research, fMRI scans, Mister Rogers, and even Major League Baseball in search of the answers. I highly recommend this book.

Coach and Stanford lecturer Shirzad Chamine also explores saboteurs in his book, Positive Intelligence. Chamine explores the various personas our saboteurs can exhibit—he calls them “accomplices”—and their motivations. I suggest starting with his free online assessment to learn more about how they show up for you. Then, read the book if you found that helpful and want to go further.

2. Acknowledge the system

It’s also vital to understand how our environments reinforce our saboteurs, especially those with underrepresented identities. In the workplace, be mindful that conversations about saboteurs and imposter syndrome can subtly shift the burden of responsibility to the employee. If you’re a woman (of any race) or a person of color (of any gender), you’re often told that if you just overcome your imposter syndrome, all will be well. Such advice ignores the discrimination, microaggressions, and structural biases that feed into your sense of doubt and uncertainty in the first place. Leaders and coaches—particularly those like me who haven’t lived this experience—need to acknowledge their own roles in shaping these environments and take responsibility for promoting systemic change while also supporting the individual.

From inclusion experts Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey:

The onus is on managers with employees from underrepresented backgrounds to spend time understanding that the frameworks determining these standards are already rigged against women, especially women of color, and likely reinforce self-doubt and unbelonging. Understanding the unique challenges faced by people who are different from them builds the managers’ capacity to fully grow in their roles.

As the founder of Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujani, told the graduating Smith College class of 2023:

It’s leaders looking around and saying that the biggest problem facing women isn’t paid family leave or pay gaps, a lack of childcare or a culture of misogyny; the problem is us. The impostor scheme, then, is just a tool—to keep our concentration on our own inadequacies, not the system that is set against us.

And Lisa Factora-Borchers, a Filipinx-American author and activist, was quoted in The New Yorker:

Whenever I’d hear white friends talk about impostor syndrome, I’d wonder, How can you think you’re an impostor when every mold was made for you? When you see mirror reflections of yourself everywhere, and versions of what your success might look like?

For more on this, I recommend Tulshyan and Burey’s fantastic HBR articles, Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome and End Imposter Syndrome in Your Workplace.

3. Notice, name, and anticipate your saboteur

The saboteur is a literal voice in the head nagging and judging for some. For others, it may be more subtle. In my case, it’s a creeping sense of dread and foreboding ahead of time, followed by withering self-criticism after the fact. So the first steps toward dealing with the saboteur are to notice it, name it, and anticipate when it might appear.

  • Count the number of times a day you notice the saboteur. When does it tend to show up? How can you expect it in the future?
  • List your five most prevalent saboteur conversations.
  • What do you imagine it looks like?
  • What do you want to call it? Sometimes you can diminish the saboteur’s power with a ridiculous nickname. Saboteurs are intimidating, but it’s harder to take “The Itty Bitty Shitty Committee” or “Lord Dumpster” seriously.

4. Interrogate your saboteur’s motivations

Going a level deeper to understand your saboteur’s motivations can also help remove the sting and make you better at predicting when it might show its head. Chamine’s assessment is helpful here. My hyper-achieving saboteur wants nothing less than absolute perfection. It makes me restless when I’m idle and not advancing somehow. It’s relentlessly focused on the future and constantly interfering with my ability to relax and be present.

  • What does your saboteur want?
  • What is it trying to get you to avoid?
  • How is your saboteur fueled by your upbringing, lived experiences, or environments?
  • What is your saboteur costing you?
  • What is the most insidious side of your saboteur?

5. Tap into your inner leader

Your inner leader is your source of self-acceptance and self-authority. Sometimes called the sage, captain, or leader within, it’s always there but often lies dormant. It’s the part of you that wants to express your purpose and values and reach your dreams. Through coaching, we can work to connect with your leader within, and through practice, you can learn to call on it in moments when you want it to take charge. We can even make room at the table for other aspects of yourself—the inner leader’s allies. Perhaps there’s a part of you that dreams or another that always appreciates the silver lining in any circumstance. Bringing other constructive voices to the conversation will help to isolate the saboteur and drown out its negative sentiments.

  • What matters most to you? What do you contribute to the world? What’s important enough to take a stand for? What part of you has the answer to these questions?
  • Visualize yourself as a child, filled with wonder and awe at the world. There’s a kitten, a butterfly, a train! Children radiate empathy and joy; now turn that sense of awe on yourself. What do you see?
  • What’s an effective structure for tapping into this source of inner power when you need it? A posture? A piece of music? Something physical you keep on your desk?

6. Gain some distance

Research has shown that we can divert our internal conversations through distancing or “dis-identifying.” Here’s Kross:

We can think of the mind as a lens and our inner voice as a button that zooms it either in or out. In the simplest sense, chatter is what happens when we zoom in close on something, inflaming our emotions to the exclusion of all the alternative ways of thinking about the issue that might cool us down. In other words, we lose perspective. The mind is flexible, if we know how to bend it. If you have a fever, you can take something to bring it down. Likewise, our mind has a psychological immune system: We can use our thoughts to change our thoughts—by adding distance.

For example, keeping a journal, time-traveling into the future, or pretending to be a fly-on-the-wall are all good ways to gain some distance. This reframing technique can be powerful, taking ourselves out of ourselves.

  • Imagine you’re advising a friend who’s experiencing your problem. What would you tell them?
  • Visualize yourself as a fly-on-the-wall. Pretend you’re a fascinated anthropologist observing the situation, watching without judgment. Or imagine you’re on a television or movie set and walk over and look through the camera. Describe what you see.
  • Engage in some mental time travel by imagining yourself months or even years in the future. What do you see from that perspective? How will you think about this situation then?
  • Reframe your situation as a challenge rather than a threat. How is this similar to other problems you’ve overcome in the past? What’s a new skill or capability you’ll gain by succeeding here?

BONUS: Putting it all together…

Here’s one final tip that combines all of the previous techniques into one handy to-go bag. When you hear the saboteur, try talking to yourself in the second person, and use your own name when doing so. You can subvocalize or speak to yourself out loud. I know what you’re thinking, but I’ve begun practicing this after reading Chatter, and it’s potent!

In the book, Kross describes a study he conducted at the height of the 2014 Ebola crisis. It asked volunteers who were anxious about Ebola to reflect on their fears. Researchers asked one group to switch away from using “I” to using their own names—“Ken is afraid of getting sick,” instead of “I’m afraid…” This group ended the study less likely to believe they would contract the disease when compared to the control. As Kross put it:

When you’re trying to work through a difficult experience, use your name and the second-person “you” to refer to yourself. Doing so is linked with less activation in brain networks associated with rumination and leads to improved performance under stress, wiser thinking, and less negative emotion.

For example, “Ken, that’s your saboteur, Lord Dumpster, trying to get you to play it safe. Lord Dumpster is a pompous ass.”

Let me know if you’d like to explore the saboteur, the leader within, or any of these concepts in our coaching sessions. In the meantime, I wish you inner quiet.

Updated: May 30, 2023

Originally Published: February 9, 2022

This article was originally published to my private newsletter exclusively for executive coaching clients and alumni

Ken Norton is an executive coach who works with product leaders. He spent more than 14 years at Google where he built products used by more than 3 billion people.