Build Esteem, Don’t Start There

As a speaker and sometimes “Motivational Speaker,” I was accosted awhile back by a student who said, “I’ve never bought into the self-esteem movement.” As we talked, she was referencing an experience she had at her workplace where a speaker was brought in for an annual meeting and, in an attempt to pump all of the managers up, focused on the leader’s role in building the self-esteem of their followers. I gather that the premise of the speech was, leaders who build self-esteem create workforces that are empowered to be successful.

As I was reflecting on this conversation later, it came to me that I was (a) a bit defensive about her Cocky Businessman perspective and (b) almost entirely in agreement with her concern. (I really hate it when that happens!). As I began to think about the subject matter of many of my speaker colleagues who are absolutely sincere about their desire to help make leaders more successful, I realize that we sometimes get the message backwards.

Myth 1. Self-esteem precedes success. This may be one of the most damaging myths and one of the most common. I say “damaging” in the sense that it is not effective. Our self-esteem is established as a result of our successes, not as an antecedent. Think about it. Nathaniel Brandon a well known psycotherapist, defined self-esteem as “the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness.” Where does this disposition come from in your followers? It comes from their ability to provide evidence for themselves that they are able and skilled enough to be successful. Success, by the way, is defined by the individual…not by you.

Myth 2. Self-esteem is about praise. In an effort to teach leaders how to motivate their employees, many lecturers and writers have focused on the idea that praising employees builds self-esteem which in turn creates satisfaction which in turn creates productivity. While this seems fairly straightforward, the problem is it doesn’t tell the whole story. Efforts to build self-esteem in others by heaping on praise usually fall short because the praise, if not seen as authentic, is not useful. When John gives a terrible executive briefing, using the conventional approach of telling him that his presentation was not clear but he spoke with authority is hollow. The key to praise is that it be a recognition of an action worthy of note. Think about it. You know when somebody is blowing smoke…your followers know as well.

Myth 3. Self-esteem can be built in others. This was at the core of my student's complaint about the “self-esteem movement.” It is ludicrous to think that you, as a leader, have the ability to grant self-esteem to others. You don’t give me self-esteem…I give me self-esteem. To decide that one of your goals is to increase the self-esteem of your followers is to decide that you somehow hold the key to their self-worth.

If you want to help your followers create an atmosphere of success and self-worth, you should ensure that the expectations of success are realistic and challenging at the same time. Helping others be successful is a large part of the truly effective leader’s approach. This is done through goal-setting, providing the right tools for the job and coaching. It is not a function of a steady stream of “you can do it” messages. If you want me to believe I can “do it,” then you have to tell me why you believe so. You have to be specific about it. What is it about my strengths or abilities or determination that makes you believe that I can succeed? And what will you do to be a partner in that success? Leaders who focus on creating a success culture are focusing on things within their power. And they are creating an environment where others can use their strengths and establish their own image of what they can accomplish.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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