Musings on Self-Esteem

Musings on Self-Esteem

We heard from a number of incredible thinkers at our recent 2012 Self-Management Symposium (the best so far, by the way).  One of our speakers, John Allison, the former CEO of BB&T (check out the video here—you need to register to view it, but registration’s free and there are a lot of cool benefits) gave a deeply profound talk that really forced me to think deeply about our shared values here at Morning Star and the Self-Management Institute.

He spoke on BB&T’s 10 core values, and how those core values have enabled continued success at BB&T.

One that struck me as a “non-mainstream” value (like integrity—everybody SAYS that integrity is a value) was Self-Esteem.  Allison made the point that Self-Esteem is a good thing—that you (as an individual) must believe that you are capable of being good, and that you have the moral right to be happy.

But then he went on to discuss the source of self-esteem.  Self-esteem can’t be “granted” or “bestowed” by someone else; “you look good in that dress” isn’t really a source of true self-esteem.  In fact, many of the things that we look to as a source of self-esteem (like conspicuous consumption or cosmetic surgery) amount to no more than a very, very poor substitute for true self-esteem.  Real self-esteem comes from doing productive work.  It comes from creating value for others.  It’s the accumulation of personal Pride (another of BB&T’s core values), which we derive by doing work that has a purpose, using reason, and exercising independent thinking (another value), in integrity with our principles (yet another value).

Think about that for a second: in order to have self-esteem, you have to have a sense of personal pride in what you do.  In order to have pride in what you do, you have to feel that the work you do is productive—that it has a purpose, that you are doing good.  Further, in order to have personal pride, and by extension, self-esteem, you have to be working in an environment that allows you to think independently, to exercise reason and to use your individual mind to make optimal and rational decisions.

So maybe you don’t think self-esteem matters all that much; I’d disagree.  Answer this question: do you think, in general, people prefer to feel good or bad about themselves?  Of course, I think we all agree that people prefer the former.  What’s the cost to our organizations, though, when people don’t feel good about themselves?  Think about the last time you felt like you were doing completely valueless work—work that was completely irrelevant or unproductive.  Was it an invigorating experience?  Did it inspire you to lofty, new heights of innovation, productivity and performance?  Of course not; that feeling is incredibly demotivating.  And, in fact, I suspect millions of people, in countless organizations, are desperate to leave their current job—a job that they hate; why?  I believe it’s because their current role is lacking at least one of the key ingredients necessary for individuals to build self-esteem.

Which brings us to what is, I believe, the irony here:  if this idea—that self-esteem is the result of doing productive work that has a purpose, and that allows you to exercise reason and independent thinking—has any merit, it means that we humans come pre-loaded with an internal motivational system.  We are all internally motivated to do things that will give us a sense of personal pride, and build our self-esteem.  And if we do, in fact, have that internal drive for self-esteem, it means that good, productive work is a part of our nature

So why, then, do so many organizations spend so much time talking about “motivating their employees”?  I’ve thought a lot about this, because the idea that employees need motivating seems to be at odds with the idea that employees have a internal drive for self-esteem that can only be fulfilled by doing productive work well.  The only conclusion I can come to is that far too many organizations have put in place systems that actually REMOVE those ingredients that are so vital to people cultivating healthy self-esteem.  They’ve eliminated a sense of purpose from jobs in the enterprise; people don’t have a sense that what they are doing has any large purpose whatsoever.  Or people in the organization see their jobs as unproductive—as not doing good things for people (think: mind-numbing, civil servant/bureaucrat).  Or perhaps it’s that people in the organization aren’t allowed to exercise reason—to think always, and to question authority.  Or perhaps it’s that people aren’t allowed to think independently—they aren’t allowed to exercise their individual judgment to make rational and optimal decisions that they are more than capable of making.

I don’t think I’m too far off the mark when I surmise that many jobs in many modern corporations don’t have most of those ingredients.  So it’s no surprise, then, that people in those organizations aren’t motivated—self-esteem (that internal motivator) isn’t a real possibility given the absence of those key ingredients, so people simply disengage and “put in their time”.  And so management in those organizations turn to experts seeking answers to, “how do we motivate our employees and achieve higher engagement levels?” when their organizational systems were the culprit that killed the naturally present motivation in the first place!


So, here’s my question to you:

Does your organization systematically ensure that people who are a part of that organization can find personal pride in their work, and accumulate healthy self-esteem, through:

  • Doing productive work that has a purpose—doing good things that matter?
  • Allowing people to use reason—to think actively, and to question authority?
  • Allowing people to think independently—to have control over their work, using their individual mind to make optimal and rational decisions about their work?

– Originally published by The Self-Management Institute on August 21, 2012.

Leadership Lessons my Kids Taught Me #2: Diapers Only Go To Size 6

Leadership Lessons my Kids Taught Me #2: Diapers Only Go To Size 6

My wife and I went to Costco the other day to buy diapers for our 8-month-old daughter.  I’m constantly astounded at the variety of baby products available; it’s a little overwhelming.  And diapers are no exception.

There are “Little Snugglers”, “Little Movers” and “Snug & Dry” (I always wonder—if I don’t buy the “Snug & Dry” is there no guarantee that she will remain snug and/or dry?).  There’s the leak lock system, or the snug fit system.  There are overnites, little swimmers, pull-ups, jean diapers (replete with a denim print) and even a new “green” option—made with hypoallergenic, organic cotton and with a liner made of renewable materials!

And that’s just a single brand!

My wife is far more decisive than I, and she quickly made her decision (we didn’t choose the “green” option), and moved to deciding which size was appropriate for our daughter.

“The size 2,” my wife said, “is for 12-18 pounds; that’s what she has now, though, and they seem a little tight.”

“So let’s go with the size 3, then,” I said.  “They’re good from 16-28 pounds.  She’s 17 pounds now, and if we buy the 2’s, we might not get through the whole box before she outgrows them.”

“But there are a lot more diapers in the size 2 box,” she says, “than the size 3 box—and for the same amount of money.”  That’s the difficult thing about Costco: the size 2 box had approximately 3,100 diapers in it whereas the size 3 box only had approximately 2,700 (I might be a little off on those numbers, but you get my point).

We ultimately settled on the box of size 3 diapers, but as we debated, I scanned the area to see what the size range is for diapers.  It appears that you can buy diapers up to a size 6 (which is suitable for children “over 35 lbs” according to the box).

Something occurred to me and later that night I asked my eight year-old son if it would bother him if I made him wear diapers.  He gave me a very strange look.  “I’m not going to force you to wear them,” I told him, “I’m just curious.  What would you think?”

“That would be weird, Dad,” he said, “and embarrassing at school.  I don’t need diapers!”  He was a little embarrassed, so I let the topic go, but it seemed that there was an analogy there.  You don’t have to be a parent to recognize that there’s a general expectation that, at some point, diapers aren’t going to be a necessity any longer.  Forget the diapers, though; from a general developmental standpoint, we (as parents) recognize that our job is to ensure that our children develop the skills, talents, knowledge and expertise required to ensure that next year they aren’t facing the same limitations that they are this year.

What I mean by that is, as a parent, your life is one long chain of constantly changing developmental goals for your children.  First, your goal is to get them to smile or coo when you speak unintelligible baby talk to them.  And when they finally do, you begin to teach them to say “DaDa” or “MaMa”.  And then it’s to wave bye-bye or blow kisses, and to crawl, then to walk.   Then it’s to count to ten, recognize their colors, or to recognize and say “nose” when you point to your nose.

Soon you’ve moved on to reading and writing, tying their shoes and riding a two-wheeled bicycle.  Then it’s on to addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, playing the piano (or violin or the flute—or even golf).

And one measure of our success as parents is the degree to which we aren’t still working on those early things—the degree to which our children have mastered something, and moved on to the next logical area of mastery.  We recognize, more than anything, the job of a parent is not a static job; it changes based upon the development of our children, and perception of our success is a direct reflection of the degree to which our children no longer need us to help them in those early areas of development.

Contrast that with the general role of a manager in a traditional organization.  I don’t bring this up to disparage managers, and I certainly am not making any generalizations about managers.  But there is something to be said here for the underlying system.

Think about this: great managers aside, the system in which managers work doesn’t say much for the manager’s subordinates.  The system puts in place pretty rigid methods of oversight—methods that don’t, systematically, allow much room for the development of those being overseen.  As an example, it’s generally recognized that one role of a manager is to approve purchases.  There’s a rational reason for this; leaders in companies want to make sure their resources are being used appropriately (that is, that money isn’t being wasted) and, perhaps more importantly, that the purchase fits into the strategy or mission of the enterprise.  And, on my first day working in a factory (or hardware store or appliance store), that system makes a lot of sense.  It’s unlikely I have enough perspective or expertise to be very effective at making wise purchases that support my organization’s mission past basic office supplies.  And that’s probably true of me on day three, and on day 10, and perhaps even on day 30.  But sooner or later, that’s not going to be the case any longer.  I’m going to learn the organization and our business; I’m going to implicitly understand our mission, and what’s required to achieve our mission.  Further, I’m going to develop ideas and concepts that I believe would support us more effectively achieving that mission.

In fact, for all intents and purposes, my level of knowledge, insight and expertise is going to rival that of my manager.  But the system doesn’t account for that, does it?  Sure, my manager (if she’s a good manager) might recognize this, and might allow me more latitude (thereby bending—or breaching—the policies, but to a positive end).  But she might not.  The point is that the system itself isn’t designed to assume that employees develop and grow—and that the managerial systems (like purchasing oversight) necessary on day one aren’t likely to be necessary as employees develop.

And what invariably ends up happening is employees end up frustrated, disenchanted and disengaged—just like my 8-year-old son would have been had I forced him to start wearing diapers.  And, even if you aren’t interested in engagement or disenchantment, think about this: if the system itself is structured so that my manager is required to approve purchases, even when it’s apparent that I have at least as much expertise as she does, and am equally as committed to the mission as she, aren’t we wasting human effort?  And that’s one small example; when we consider the compounded effect of a system that demands this type of relationship all the way up and down the chain of command, the potential costs are staggering.

I know that I’m presenting hypotheticals and concepts that are a little theoretical here, and I can hear you, my Eternal Reader, telling me that you were “a good manager”, and that most of the managers that you encountered were also good managers—and that may, in fact, be true.  But my quest here isn’t against “bad managers”; it’s against a system that is inherently flawed.  Sure, we can make the flawed system better by hiring good managers, but that doesn’t seem like a very noble quest—and it’s certainly not the stuff revolutions are made of.

This is, as always, first and foremost a call to examine the very philosophies that underlie our organizations.  There are inherent flaws in the system as we know it—flaws that can’t be addressed by simply hiring better managers.  Kids grow up, and our role as a parent changes.  And employees grow; we can’t grow as a company with a managerial system that assumes they don’t.

– Originally published by The Self-Management Institute on July 20, 2011.

Leadership Lessons My Kids Taught Me: People Try to Live Up to Your Expectations

Leadership Lessons My Kids Taught Me: People Try to Live Up to Your Expectations

Being a parent is an educational experience, as I’m sure those of you who’ve raised children can attest to.  But as a lifelong student of business, and more specifically, management, I wouldn’t have thought that I would learn all the really important leadership lessons from my children.

I did, though.  I met this week with a friend who hasn’t had children, and as we discussed leadership, I realized that my view on the subject has really been influenced by my experiences as a parent.  Further, I realized that there are a few key lessons that really relate to Self-Management.  So I’m going to try to write about them in my next few posts here.

This isn’t, for those of you who are feeling a little cynical, one of those shallow “I learned it in kindergarten” type articles.  It’s a small set of leadership principles, the revelation of which I’ve only received as a result of my attempts to be an adequate parent.

So here goes.

Lesson #1: People Will Try to Live Up to Your Expectations

I guess it’s a little cliché, but hear me out before you deem this post shallow; I think you’ll be surprised.

I learned early on as a parent that setting an expectation for excellent things—grades, performance at the karate exhibition or piano recital, a singing part in the church Christmas event—caused my kids to strive to achieve that level of excellence.  We talk a lot at our house about being excellent, and about what it takes to be excellent: discipline and hard work, focus, commitment, responsibility and a good attitude.  And my children put a great deal of effort into meeting those expectations.

As I pondered their effort, I began to wonder what it would be like if, instead of talking about excellence we talked about mediocrity or “doing enough to scrape by”.  Would their efforts and attitudes be different?  They would, I think.  Here’s why: an expectation is a somewhat overt message that says, in no uncertain terms, “here’s what I think you’re capable of”.  That’s a pretty powerful thing to say to a kid: this is what I think you can do; it has an incredible effect on what they actually achieve.

And then there are the parents who constantly berate their children, pointing out their inadequacies, and using every failure on the part of the child as further proof that the child doesn’t have what it takes to be anything of any import.  We’ve all seen those parents, and we’ve all met their children; often, the child perfectly achieves the parents’ expectation of him.

I don’t think this is a hard sell, is it?  I’m not telling you anything you don’t agree with (at least most of you), to some degree.  But if it’s good for a child, is it good for an adult too?  Yet our businesses, by design, have this horrible tendency to set expectations depressingly low.  There are locks on every thing we can possibly lock—implying we expect someone to steal.  An employee has to get a requisition signed, in triplicate by four different managers, in order to purchase gloves and safety supplies—implying we think someone is wasting company resources.  Employees have to go through an intricate and, frankly, oppressive systems of checks, and achieve myriad approvals before implementing any sort of meaningful change—implying that we think most of our people are dumb and can’t think through the change process.

I know that there are a few of you reading this—my “but I was a good manager”—friends who are already scrolling to the bottom to tell me why I’m wrong, and that’s OK; I’ll read the comment and likely respond.  But before you do, ask yourself if I’m really all that wrong; don’t those things, even if they’re subtle, send some pretty powerful signals to employees about what we expect of them?  And, if that’s the “here’s what we expect” message that we send, how likely is it that we’re going to have a strong population of employees in our enterprises who truly perform excellently?

I had a conversation recently with a colleague in one of our affiliate enterprises that really brought this idea into focus for me.  This colleague was remarking on the general inadequacy of the colleagues they work with on a regular basis.  The people they work with, this colleague said, were lazy, liars who have a tendency to steal.  I was a little surprised by this, but listened as the colleague went on to outline the things they had worked to implement in an effort to catch the liars, thieves and sluggards.  I wondered if those efforts had resulted in a more honest group of non-thieving colleagues with incredible work ethics?  The answer was no.  It made me wonder which was the cause and which was the effect.

So here’s my point: Self-Management is built on a foundation that expects quite a lot out of people.  There aren’t a lot of locks, because there’s an expectation that people will be brutally honest; there aren’t a lot of hoops to jump through in order to cause change, because people are expected to be the experts who know what change is needed; and people don’t have to get “approvals” to make purchases, because they’re expected to know better than anyone what needs to be purchased in order to perform.

Of course that raises some, “but what happens when…” questions, which we’ll endeavor to answer in subsequent posts!

– Originally published by The Self-Management Institute on December 24, 2010.