1 Success and Self Esteem - a nice idea, but it’s not that simple

FrankNewberry2012Many employers believe there is a link between an employee's self esteem and success in the workplace. For the first time Trainer and Motivational Speaker, Frank Newberry, comes clean on the details and concludes that it is not that simple


For the purposes of this article I would like to define 'self esteem' as how you regard yourself most of the time. If you have high self esteem, you think well of yourself. You feel that you are an okay person. If you have low self esteem, you do not think that you are that special. You may even believe that you are not an okay person.

For many years, experts have suggested that, if a person has good self esteem, they do better work than people who have poor self esteem. For some time the prevailing view has been that 'a happy worker is a good worker', and that supervisors should, therefore, keep their staff happy. It has been suggested that supervisors could do this in a cost-effective way by giving praise and recognition to people on a regular basis.

Six years ago, in an article on these pages called 'Top Tips for Motivating People', I was even able to offer advice on how regular that recognition should be.

Back then, I mentioned some research which suggested that around 40% of the working population only wanted to get praise and recognition when they felt it was deserved, e.g. only on the day that they did something exceptional. If they were praised more frequently they would become suspicious and the positive effect of the praise, i.e. to heighten their self esteem, could well be lost.

I also mentioned that another 40% of the working population wanted praise and recognition almost every day. They wanted recognition whether or not they had done something exceptional. This 40% wanted even more recognition when they did do something exceptional. They would become anxious and worried if they were not praised frequently and their self esteem would drop.

The remaining 20% were seen as being 'equally both' - sometimes daily praise was what they wanted, but some days they felt it was not needed.

All this is still true because people prefer to be happy at work and recognition, when given appropriately (see below), can make employees feel happier and team morale could also benefit.

There is no proven link between self esteem and work performance

However, I can now disclose that recent scientific research suggests that, whilst there are benefits to having good self esteem levels in the work team, there are drawbacks which should also be considered.

The research results are conclusive about one important aspect. There is no proven link between self esteem and the performance of typical work tasks. People can do a reasonable job, even a great day's work, without feeling good about themselves.

Importantly, an employee with high self esteem does not necessarily perform straightforward work tasks any better just because they feel good about themselves.

Why, then, has it become popular to believe that self esteem equals success at work? Well, it would now seem that the people who popularised the notion that a happy worker is a good worker were expressing an expert opinion as a positive way forward for managers and decision makers. However, their claim was made without any specific evidence to back it up.

Good self esteem can help if the employee has to be persistent after failure

In their defence, there are some associated aspects of work performance that good self esteem does enhance. For example, good self esteem can help if a job requires a person:

1. To have persistence after failure
2. To be confident enough to speak up and, if necessary, criticise their group's approach
3. To be able to take initiatives
4. To come across as a happy person, e.g. when dealing with customers

However, if a person has to do fairly straightforward tasks quickly and accurately, their self esteem level does not seem to make any difference at all to that speed and accuracy. This means that a miserable so-and-so can do the work just as well as the happiest member of the work team!

Adolf Hitler had high self esteem

So, any general efforts to boost the self esteem of the workforce could well be wasted, and worse, there is a downside to people having high or inflated self esteem. Boosting the self esteem of a narcissist, i.e. a vain, conceited and self-important person can be counter-productive. Narcissists can start out being very charming, but they can end up alienating people, especially when things do not go their way. They can turn on the very people whose self esteem they had built up. A powerful example of this would be Adolf Hitler who had high self esteem and knew how to make people feel good.

As a trainer or performance consultant, I am regularly called in by employers to work with teams and individual employees who are under-performing. Some of my clients have even asked me to give their team 'a boost' (a boost to their self esteem). When I meet the people concerned, it is often very clear that the team's morale is low. Despite this, there are usually individuals who are working hard and working well even though morale is low.

Slow to praise but quick to criticise

When I probe the team morale problem, I often find that part of the problem is that the team feels under-valued, they are rarely consulted on important issues and recognition is hardly ever given by employers. On the other hand, criticism is given on an almost daily basis.

This approach, characterised by many as management being 'slow to praise but quick to criticise, is often believed to be necessary 'so that staff do not become complacent' or 'come to expect praise all the time'.

And, yet, whenever I ask people (and I have asked hundreds) if they get too much praise at work, they almost universally say they do not get enough. When I ask people if they would like a little more recognition - the vast majority say that more recognition would be appreciated.

Research does show that, whether or not it affects performance, people like to be happy at work and, in my experience, they prefer to be around happy people. Happy workmates can help make the work a more enjoyable experience.

On balance, the evidence is clear that employers should use praise to boost staff self esteem - as a reward for doing a job well or making a special effort.

My own view is that team leaders need good self esteem (see 1-3 above) and teams should learn to appreciate and value each other more.

Frank Newberry has been helping people get better results in the turfcare sector for over twenty years. If you are having team or individual work performance problems, and you would like some advice that is specific to your situation, you can get in touch with Frank direct via the contact tab of his personal website: www.franknewberry.com.

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