The link between achievement and self-esteem

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The jury is in but divided, but more about that later.

However, the jury is in on which comes first, self-esteem or achievement. Some scientists noticed that providing lots and lots of empty praise — giving every kid in the race, including the last one, a trophy — leads to inflated but baseless self-esteem. It can even have the opposite effect to what the providers of lots and lots of meaningless praise intend. The researchers found that kids with unrealistically high self-esteem might be more willing to enter dangerous territory, like cheating, experimenting with drugs and stealing.

It’s also been shown that telling kids they’re smart, whether they are or not, makes even the genuinely smart kids less willing to apply effort, preventing them for reaching their full potential. These genuinely smart kids end up thinking that putting in effort to learn means they aren’t smart and they become more concerned with protecting their reputation as smart, in looking smart then being smart.

So, to have the sort of high self-esteem that’s worth something, you need to achieve worthwhile goals first. To do that, you need three things:

  1. You need to put in effort and understand that trying hard does make a difference.
  2. You need willpower to keep putting in the effort. We’ve talked about the importance of willpower before and the good news that it’s just like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.
  3. And you need something called self-compassion, which is different from self-esteem. While self-esteem often involves the need to be special and above average, when you have self-compassion you don’t compare yourself to others and you can cope realistically with mistakes and failure without them crushing your self-esteem—after all, everyone makes mistakes and falls short sometimes.People with self-compassion tend to look after themselves by exercising more and eating more healthily for instance. They have learning goals rather than performance goals and learn for it’s own sake, not for grades or to impress people.

These three qualities — effort, willpower and self-compassion — are what help you achieve and your achievements build genuine self-esteem. Once you’ve earned your self-esteem, you are likely to be happier, more optimistic and more motivated than people with low self-esteem, and less likely to be anxious, depressed and negative. You’re not going to be an obnoxious person with an over-sized ego based on nothing, either.

The bottom line is, earn your self-esteem through your achievements, not from just be ing handed a trophy for merely running in the race.

And as for the which came first, the chicken or the egg, well, that’s still a conundrum. Some scientists say the chicken did because two non-chickens mated and, via a genetic mutation, produced the first chicken. So the chicken came first. But other scientists say the egg came first because two non-chickens mated and via that same genetic mutation, produced the first chicken. But their logic is that since it was a chicken inside the egg, the egg came first.


Emotional labour

Here we are in the service and knowledge economy. On the upside, it means less dangerous, demeaning and dirty labour than work in the agricultural and industrial economies. On the downside, it means more emotional labour (Arlie Hochschild’s term, in The Managed Heart). One can hurt your back; the other can hurt your psyche.

Two thirds of Australians are at risk of psychic hurt due to emotional labour. This is work that requires employees to hide emotions seen as unwanted and manufacture wanted emotions.

  • Retail and hospitality workers need to be cheerful to gain repeat business.
  • Health care professionals need to remain empathic yet neutral to ensure objectivity.
  • Police officers often need to seem angry to gain a confession.
  • Judges need to appear emotionally neutral so as not to influence the jury.
  • Office workers may be having a bad day but still need to be cordial and pleasant to their colleagues to grease the wheels of teamwork.
  • Customer service people need to be patient and helpful even to the biggest pains in the neck.

The difficulty is all this emotional dishonesty can be bad for employees and bad for organisations. For employees it can mean burnout, loss of job satisfaction and even damaged family relationships (when you’ve been pleasant to people all day, it can be tempting to drop your mask of sweetness when you walk through your front door). For organisations it can mean high staff turnover and disengaged employees.

Before moving on to possible remedies, or at least ameliorations, we need to distinguish between two possible ways of putting on the organisationally required ‘face’: surface acting and deep acting.

Surface acting is when you only disguise your feelings. It’s superficial. You paste on a smile and say ‘Yes, certainly, M’am’ through gritted teeth. But you still want to put your fingers snugly around M’am’s throat.

Deep acting is where you consciously control your feelings. You might recall a happy experience to put you in a cheerful mood. You might see the difficult person you’re dealing with as a frightened child to boost your empathy (reframing). The desired emotions follow naturally.

With surface acting, you don’t kid yourself about how you really feel and most of the time, you don’t kid other people, either. It demands more energy and effort and leads to more health problems, too–greater emotional exhaustion, feeling like a non-person, depression and anxiety, to name a few.

With deep acting, you actually feel the emotion you’re portraying and because it’s more genuine, it’s more believable, both to yourself and to others.

So, given that you’re likely to carry out emotional labour yourself and to be leading and managing people carrying out emotional labour, how can you lessen its negative effects while still displaying the behaviours and attitudes demanded by the organisation? Here are five steps you can take.

  • Recruit the right people. Look for people who share your organisation’s values and whose temperaments and attitudes lead them to naturally display the desired behaviours. Look for people who don’t ‘wear their hearts on their sleeve’ and who have a track record of successfully regulating their emotions.
  • Train people in deep acting. Trained imagination, role play and reframing are three techniques that work.
  • Let people de-brief after a hard day or a hard encounter. Recovery short-circuits burnout, leading to increased performance. People can also learn from each other this way, too.
  • Encourage healthy off-the-job activities (exercise, sport etc.) and a healthy life style (healthy eating, work-life balance etc.) to further replenish depleted resources.
  • Recognise the value of emotional labour.

Do you walk your talk?

We all know people who say one thing and do another. The manager who says: ‘I believe in participation’ but fails to listen to people’s ideas and suggestions. Translation: ‘I don’t believe people have ideas or suggestions worth listening to.’ Or the manager who says ‘My team is first rate’ but constantly checks up on them and avoids delegating work. Translation: ‘I don’t trust my team so I need to keep an eye on them.’

Are those managers hypocrites? Maybe. I think there are three more likely reasons they say one thing and do another:

  1. They really do value participation or think their team is great but their core beliefs–their hearts, which guide their day-to-day actions, haven’t caught up with their heads yet.
  2. Participation and saying positive things about your team may be part of the organisation’s values and culture but they aren’t part of the manager’s values or core beliefs. So the manager gives lip service to the company talk, but but doesn’t walk it.
  3. A stronger value or belief overrides the manager’s weaker value of participation or belief their team is great. Maybe the organisation punishes mistakes and the manager values staying out of trouble more than trusting the team to do its work or come up with sound suggestions.

Whatever the reason, failing to walk your talk costs you credibility, trust and respect. The trouble is, people generally don’t know when their deeds aren’t matching their words. It’s the ‘blind spot’, and we all have them.

So what to do? Here are three ideas:

  1. When you trust the people you work with enough, you can ask them for some honest feedback.
  2. You can listen to your words and spend some time quietly reflecting on whether your actions match them.
  3. You can consider whether your own values match your organisation’s values and when they don’t, you can start polishing up your CV.

Walking your talk is an important part of integrity and authenticity. It gives your formal authority legitimacy, without which, your leadership is … well let’s be honest here … doomed.











How to build trust

Continuing on with the theme of the last couple of weeks–walking your talk and living and leading according to your values, let’s look at some specific behaviours that signal trustworthiness. Here are four general behaviours that you can make part of your repertoire if they aren’t already:

  1. Engage in cheery banter.
  2. Make and maintain eye contact with people.
  3. Smile.
  4. Tell people you are committed to being open and honest.

Naturally, you don’t want to over-do any of these, just as you don’t want to under-do them. Think of Goldilocks and aim for ‘just right’.

Here are some other, more specific, tips:

  • Behave consistently lest your changing priorities, rules and standards lead people to label you a hypocrite.
  • Consider the impact of your actions on others lest you behave inconsiderately or thoughtlessly.
  • Deal with the tough stuff like a helpful coach, not a confrontational critic.
  • Keep confidences.
  • Honour your commitments.
  • Look after your team member’s as well as your organisation’s interests (not just your own).
  • When changes are needed, carefully explain why change is needed, what it is intended to achieve and what you expect from people.
  • When you get something wrong, say so and say what you’ve learned from your mistakes.

What do you stand for?

You’ve probably heard the saying ‘When you don’t know what you stand for, you’ll fall for anything’. Or words to that effect.

What you stand for depends on what you value. What are the 10 most important foundations you live your life by? (If you want to check, you can do an Internet search for ‘values tests’ and complete one or two.)

Values give you deep roots. They’re your ‘inner compass’ that guides your actions and decisions.

Knowing your own values helps you to find a good employment match. Working with an organisation with similar values to your own makes it easy to practice what you preach–or ‘walk your talk’, which we considered last week. You’re happiest and work best when your own values and the values of your employer are in accord. And you’re happiest and achieve the most when you spend the bulk of your time, at work and at home, on activities that reflect your values.

When you have a strong sense of your own values and behave in line with them, you’re easy to work with because you behave consistently. This earns people’s confidence and trust–the lubrication every organisation needs to operate optimally.

So, then: What are your top ten values? Do they match your organisation’s values? Do your day-to-day actions and activities echo them?

Managing your emotions

Budget cuts, lay-offs, organisation changes and takeovers, a new boss, an annoying work colleague–they’re all recipes for feeling just a tad emotional and stressed. And the way you respond–not react–can harm or enhance your standing in the eyes of your colleagues.

Reacting is automatic and reflexive. It’s a sign your ‘reptilian brain’ is in control. With your reptilian brain in charge, you say something or do something reflexively, without thought, which generally puts you at a disadvantage. You can end up looking defensive and emotional and embarrassing yourself and others.

When you respond, you’ve given a bit of rational thought to what you do or say. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel annoyed, nervous or upset, but it does mean you’ve thought about how to deal with your feelings and chosen whether, and how much, to put your emotions out there for everyone to see.

It takes only seconds to respond rather that react. When we’re feeling an emotion, we tend to shallow breathe, which puts us in the flight-fight-freeze mode of our reptilian brain; great when your life is on the line but not so great at work. Keep breathing to give your brain some oxygen and give your ‘thinking brain’, the neocortex, a chance to take over.

Say, for example, you’re feeling frustrated because you’ve been on hold for the usual ridiculous and insulting amount of time, or your boss hasn’t acknowledged a particularly great job you’ve done. Before saying or doing anything, take a deep breath. Stop and think about why you’re feeling frustrated and how you could think about the situation differently. Maybe being on hold gives you a chance to look out the window and give your eyes a rest. Maybe when your boss doesn’t compliment you on a great job it’s because she expects nothing less than the best from you because you’re a star.  Now you can decide what, if anything, you want to do.

Or say you’re feeling angry. At the very first sign of anger, stop what you’re doing and breathe. Then maybe go and grab a glass of water and drink it. The key is to interrupt the anger and give yourself some thinking space so you can work out your most effective response.

And here is the good news: Managing your emotions is like exercising your willpower–the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

How to avoid the most common communication mistakes

Last Friday, I posted twice. In the second post, Do you make any of these common writing mistakes? we reviewed four common mistakes people make when writing. Here are some other common communication mistakes of the non-written kind and how to avoid them.

The first is cowardice. Cowardice may mean taking the easy way out and delivering bad news by email rather than in person, or it might be avoiding difficult conversations. Think about the best way to deliver bad news so you can deliver it sensitively. That usually means putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and thinking about how they will hear your words. It doesn’t mean not telling the truth, but it does mean telling the truth with tact. And, almost always, in person.

When the bad news entails negative feedback, which I prefer to call constructive information or corrective information (the latter being a bit stronger and more directive), the art of providing clear, actionable information is important in our personal as well as our professional lives. So think through what you want to say and practice a bit first, even if only in your head.

Even when the news isn’t bad, you often need to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. When you want to provide some information or instructions or ask a favour, for instance, you’re going to have a better result when you think about it from the other person’s perspective. What does she already know and think about the issue? How can he use the information you’re providing? What’s currently going on in her life? What tack is most likely to motivate him? And so on.

When good communicators have the same message or request for four different people, they invariably give it in four different ways, each tailored to the individual they’re speaking with. Everyone has different needs, life experiences and backgrounds which you can take into account to communicate more successfully.

Another mistake is not being clear about your own motives. What’s your real purpose in communicating? What assumptions are you basing your communication on? What action do you hope for from the other person? When you realise you’re about to communicate based on frustration or anger, for instance, you know it’s time to zip your lips.

Bottom line: Effective communication is about thinking through how best to put your message across, and that means using your empathy and emotional intelligence.