The Look & Sound of Self-Esteem

Dan’s feedback was harsh, especially from his direct reports. Some typical comments: “He doesn’t want to hear bad news.” “He refuses to accept reality and then gets mad at us when things go wrong.” “Dan needs to get a grip on what’s real. Wake up or get out!”

It seemed his direct reports, feeling ignored and angry, were using Dan’s feedback report to vent. I wondered how Dan would respond to this very direct, “in your face” bad news.

Sitting across from me, reading the report, one of Dan’s legs started to jiggle. Then he began tapping his pen on the paper. His breathing became rapid. When he finally looked up, he began to debate the feedback and deny its validity. How ironic. His protests and denials were proving that the feedback was on target: Dan was resisting reality.

Nathaniel Branden is a psychologist whose life work has been the study of self-esteem. The first of his “six pillars of self-esteem” is this: “The practice of living consciously.” For him, living consciously starts with “respect for facts.” Dan was clearly having trouble respecting facts.

“To be effective, a leader must be well aligned with reality—open and available to all facts, knowledge, information, data, feedback that bear on the success of the mission of the organization,” Branden writes in his book, Self-Esteem at Work. “Dismissing pertinent realities in the name of short-term comfort is not an acceptable option.” Dan was not there yet.

I can empathize with Dan. I recall being a young actor in the week before opening night. We had all changed out of our costumes and were gathered in the front rows of the empty theatre to receive notes from our director. Over the course of the next ninety minutes, the director gave very personal feedback to us in a very public forum. I only received two notes that night (my role was very small), but each time he called my name I experienced a rush of embarrassment so overwhelming it was almost impossible to hear him.

By contrast, our two lead actors, both seasoned pros, received an endless stream of feedback that night and appeared to welcome all his notes. I was able to observe this but couldn’t yet do it myself. Why? My confidence, my self-esteem as an actor, was still very shaky.

Branden nails this when he says living consciously is “seeking and being eagerly open to any information, knowledge, or feedback that bears on your interests, values, goals and projects.”

That is quite a defenseless path to walk. Who do you know who eagerly seeks feedback? Do you?

Self-esteem is critical in business because we tend to feel most comfortable with people whose level of self-esteem approximates our own. So if a company’s senior team has an average self-esteem of 5 on a ten-point scale (ten being most healthy), are they most likely to surround themselves with employees who have an esteem level of 7 or 3? The answer, of course, is 3.

This can seriously impact a company’s success. People with shaky self-esteem are simply not as effective as people with solid self-esteem. One simple example is the ability to get along with others. Branden points out that people whose self-esteem is solid “are not touchy—not overly sensitive” and “tend not to escalate small frictions into major problems.” In other words, when self-esteem is high, employees do not take things personally, so they can focus on the work at hand rather than attacks or self-justification.

But self-esteem is hard won. Achieving just the first pillar (living consciously) requires that you seek to understand not only the world around you but also the world inside you. This is difficult work to do alone. And it’s rarely encouraged as part of our work day! But to be our most effective, we must understand our inner workings. How else will we be able to manage ourselves?.

One way to begin to understand your inner self is through a seemingly simple exercise called sentence completion. Begin with a sentence fragment or stem. For Dan, or for you, it might be, “If I brought five percent more self-esteem to my work—”

Then, with the sole requirement being that each ending be a grammatical completion of the sentence, work as rapidly as possible to write six or ten endings to the sentence. No pausing to think. If you go blank, invent. Don’t worry if any particular ending is true or reasonable. Don’t judge yourself. Just keep going. When you have ten sentences completed, put it away. Don’t reread it.

The next day, using the same stem, do the same thing. Don’t read your work from the day before. Do this for a week. Throughout the exercise maintain a high level of mental focus and complete lack of internal censorship. The practice, done repetitively, brings insight, integration and change.

At the end of Self-Esteem at Work, Branden has written sentence stems for a 21-week program of personal development. It is quite a gift. Is it easy? Here’s his answer to that: “To work at cultivating the kind of awareness I am describing is a noble pursuit, even a heroic one, because truth is sometimes frightening or painful, and the temptation to close your eyes is sometimes strong.”

Being heroic is difficult, but the benefits of healthy self-esteem to you and to your company are immeasurable.

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