Low self-esteem – is it holding your business back?

Trust Yourself

I am proud to say that I am a survivor of low self-esteem. I am not “cured”. Certain situations still evoke that “what if they find out I’m a fraud” thinking. I expect this will probably always be the case. But these days I’m able to recognise those thoughts for what they are and have the tools to kick them to the curb – before they screw up my decision making or distort my thinking. In other words, low self-esteem no longer holds me back.


What changed for me? It sounds cliché but someone gave me a book. The book was Nathaniel Branden’s “The Six Pillars of Self Esteem”, and working through that book with said book-giver, a very talented coach (who now happens to be my business partner) changed my life.  


Have you ever had that experience of buying a new car, and suddenly you’re seeing that same make and model everywhere? I have found that it’s the same with self-esteem. Since I have focussed on developing my own self-esteem, I have become shockingly aware of how many others out there are sufferers. Low self-esteem is simply everywhere, and don’t be fooled, highly successful people in high-level roles are definitely not immune. In fact, sometimes those feelings of having to continually work harder and be better in order to prove yourself is the very thing that drives these people into highly successful roles – only to continue experiencing those same old “I’m not good enough” mantras.  I am currently helping a CEO to work his way through “The Pillars”. He has spent his entire adult life suffering the belief that he is essentially unintelligent and lazy – despite compelling evidence to the contrary. And take it from me, the word “suffer” is accurate.


There’s no question that low self-esteem is a misery for those who experience it. But it is also a massive drain on our organisations. In the “Six Pillars”, Branden proposes that successful organisations of the future will be those geared to self-esteem. His argument is simple – the traits necessary in today’s world of work, and into the future (creativity, proactivity, entrepreneurial thinking, ability to embrace and drive change) are traits that demand a healthy level of self-esteem. My own personal experience is this – low self-esteem stops people being able to give their best, to fully contribute and to reach their own full potential. It can also lead to behaviours that can negatively affect others. In our current global economy where every organisation needs every advantage it can get, can we afford this? 


The question then becomes – can an organisation influence the self-esteem of its people? Here’s the good news - the answer is a resounding YES.  Through the creation of a culture that develops, protects and encourages healthy self-esteem, an organisation can ensure that its people are in an environment that allows their own self-esteem, and therefore their contribution to thrive. The existence of such a culture will be evident through its values and infrastructure – for example, it’s systems for reward and recognition, learning and development, initiatives around creativity and innovation etc.


So then, where to start? As is so often the case, the starting point is with our leaders. An organisation that develops and nourishes self-esteem (rather than damaging it) is one where people feel safe to put their ideas forward, where their contributions are recognised and where it’s safe to make mistakes in the process of learning and creativity. To achieve this, an organisation needs leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence, who are interested in solutions rather than blame, and who deeply believe in treating others with empathy and respect. They also need their own healthy level of self-esteem. Do we have enough support for leaders in our organisations who struggle with self-esteem to get help and develop their “esteem muscle”? I believe the answer is a resounding NO.  It’s a scary thing for many leaders to even admit to esteem issues, let alone begin the journey required to develop their level of self-esteem.

We don’t talk often about self-esteem in business, and it’s a difficult and complex issue. But it’s also holding our organisations back, right now, today.  Perhaps it’s a conversation we need to start having.

Marie Johnston

What are your views on self-esteem in business?