Self-Esteem, Part II: How Can An Organization Make Use of Self-Esteem?
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6 Ways to Optimize Performance Through Openness & Accountability

By: Will Schutz, Ph.D.

Here is a new twist on an old saying: If I give a hungry woman a fish, she won’t be hungry. If I teach her how to fish, she’ll never be hungry. But, if I create conditions within which she teaches herself how to fish, she’ll never be hungry and she may have enhanced self-esteem.

Self-esteem is at the heart of all human relations and productivity in organizations. For example:

  • Teamwork difficulties arise from individuals’ rigidities and defensiveness which come not from difference among members, but from low self- esteem and fear of exposure.
  • Conflict resolution similarly depends on dissolving individuals’ rigidities and getting people to see conflict as a logical puzzle for team members to solve together.
  • Problem solving is blocked when a person is anxious about being exposed, or is determined to be right, or shows other kinds of defensive behavior that stem from low self-esteem.
  • Leadership relies centrally on self-awareness, which in turn requires sufficiently strong self-esteem to acknowledge individual weaknesses and feel comfortable being known to others.
  • Performance appraisal is successful to the extent each person feels acknowledged for his or her strengths and weaknesses and for who he or she is and, through healthy self-esteem, is willing to give up blame in favor of mutual problem solving.
  • Injury- and illness-free workplaces may also be attained through self-awareness.
  • Quality programs succeed when personal agendas based on low self-esteem are handled effectively.
  • Diversity may be celebrated when threats to the self-concept from “different” groups are alleviated.

Since productive and efficient functioning depends on high self-esteem, the organization can capitalize by enhancing self-esteem. From this standpoint, the goal of the ideal organization is to bring about the greatest self-esteem for the largest number of employees. If all employees have high self-esteem, the organization will inevitably be productive and successful.

But the organization cannot give people self-esteem. Providing housing or food or money is sometimes equated with increasing a person’s self-esteem. Virtuous as these acts are, they are not necessarily related to increasing self-esteem. A hungry man given food is no longer hungry, but does not necessarily have any better feeling about his own ability to feed himself. This is not to say we should not be generous. It is only to point out that these acts do not inevitably lead to increased self-esteem.

Too widespread is the notion that helping means giving something I think is of value. Many of our failures of relationships result from giving you what I want to give you and being amazed at your resentment. Such a result follows from not bothering to find out what is of value to you. Giving because I want to be seen by others as generous is not true generosity. Typically, it comes from feeling low self-esteem. If I feel truly generous, I bother to find out what will be seen by you as helpful. My focus is on being helpful, not on being seen as helpful.

For a social or personal action to be effective for increasing self-esteem, it must be carefully thought through. Helping is a fine art. If I want to help you increase your self-esteem, I must be inventive enough to crease conditions within which you will develop your own abilities and overcome your fears of not being adequate (recall the fish story above). It is my experience of doing and being something I formerly did not feel capable of that leads me to feel increased self-esteem. So, although the organization cannot give employees higher self-esteem, it can create conditions within which it is easier for them to enhance their own self-esteem.

The table lists the specific links between individual self-esteem and the organizational atmosphere conducive to bringing about those individual feelings. More detail on these dimensions follows.

For the individual, the goal is to continuously enhance the six dimensions defining self-esteem:

  • Aliveness. I’m fully alive. I use myself well. I’m energetic. I’m not bored.
  • Self-determining. I choose my own life. I’m self-determining and autonomous. I feel free and not coerced. I’m responsible for myself.
  • Self-awareness. I tell the truth to myself and to others. I’m aware of myself. I’m aware that I have an unconscious and constantly strive to be more conscious. I don’t deceive myself.
  • Significance. I feel significant. I’m an important person. I make a difference.
  • Competence. I feel competent. I can cope with the situations presented by life.
  • Likability. I feel likable. I enjoy my own company. I like the person I am.

For the organization, the goal is to create an atmosphere that fosters all employees’ self-esteem, specifically by means of the following factors:

  • Participation. The organization offers full participation in its business. I, the employee, do not want (nor am I required) to participate in all activities, but I do have the opportunity and am invited to do so. I’m kept informed of company activities and included in the appropriate activities I wish to pursue.
  • Freedom. I’m trusted to determine my own best courses of action.
  • Openness. The organization and I are fully open with each other. We keep no secrets (except certifiable industrial or security secrets) and do not withhold. I answer all questions truthfully and completely.
  • Recognition. I am known and recognized by the organization. As a policy, the organization routinely acquires an understanding of the worth and abilities of each employee.
  • Empowerment. I am fully empowered and do everything voluntarily. I participate in final decisions on all the issues that I know the most about and that most affect me.
  • Humanity. The organization appreciates and knows me as a person and encourages social contacts.