How to Build Self-Esteem

By Blitzer, Roy J.; Petersen, Colleen et al. | Training & Development, February 1993 | Go to article overview

How to Build Self-Esteem

Blitzer, Roy J., Petersen, Colleen, Rogers, Linda, Training & Development


Firms are laying people off. Consumer confidence is plunging. Given the uncertain economic climate, why would anyone give up a steady job?

It may seem odd, but good people--valuable employees--do it every day. Usually, they leave for better positions elsewhere. Take Ken, an experienced underwriter in a northeastern insurance company, who scribbled the following remarks on his exit-interview questionnaire:

"This job isn't right for me. I like to have more input on decisions that affect me--more of a chance to show what I can do. I don't get enough feedback to tell if I'm doing a good job or not, and the company keeps people in the dark about where it's headed. Basically, I feel like an interchangeable part most of the time."

In answer to the question about whether the company could have done anything to keep him, Ken replied simply, "Probably not."

Why do so many promising employees leave their jobs? And why do so many others stay on but perform at minimal levels for lack of better alternatives? One of the main reasons--Ken's reason--can be all but invisible, because it's so common in so many organizations: a systemwide failure to build and maintain employee self-esteem.

Corporations should be concerned about the self-esteem of employees like Ken. By investing in it, they may actually help reduce turnover, protect training investments, increase productivity, improve quality, and reap the benefits of innovative thinking and teamwork.

Human resource professionals and managers can contribute to corporate success by encouraging employees' empowerment, security, identity, "connectedness," and competence. How? By recognizing the essential components of self-esteem and by understanding what enhances and diminishes those components in people.

Ken doubts that his company will ever change, but other organizations are taking positive steps to focus on and enhance employee self-esteem. As a result, they're reducing turnover, improving quality, increasing productivity, and protecting their training investments.

Serious interest in self-esteem--which the California Task Force on Self-Esteem defines as "appreciating one's own worth and acting responsibly toward others"--surfaced about 20 years ago, when some innovative U.S. schools first demonstrated a solid link between self-esteem and academic excellence. Since then, several studies have confirmed the salubrious effects of high self-esteem. The benefits show up in people of both sexes; of all ages, levels of education, and socioeconomic backgrounds; and at school, home, and work.

Summing up 20 years of research--and only slightly overstating his case--Nathaniel Branden calls self-esteem "the single most powerful force in our existence."

In recent years, the power of self-esteem has gradually become more of a mainstream subject. Even big business is beginning to seem more comfortable with the idea. Still, a concern for self-esteem in the workplace strikes some people as laughable. Maybe that's because they correctly recognize self-esteem as a feeling. "Don't we have to perform in spite of our feelings?" they ask. "Isn't that what we're paid to do?"

There is a well-known American aversion to talking about--or even appearing to care about--feelings. Despite that avoidance, feelings are at the secret heart of many U.S. institutions. Consider the locker-room pep talk. Consider the emotions evoked by a newborn baby asleep in a crib. Consider the riderless horse in a president's funeral cortege.

Like every other strong feeling, self-esteem--or its absence--has deep consequences for human behavior. In the simplest terms, low self-esteem--in abused children, for example--can perpetuate failure. …

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