Focus on accomplishments to build self-esteem

April 19, 2010
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People often minimize the importance of learning from failure. Too often people consciously seek to avoid failure because they fear more what others will think than they feel might be learned from their mistakes.

While a sense of the past is an important part of building an identity, when individuals anchor themselves in history — seeking the comfort in being “where they are” rather than “where they could be” — they tend to lose track of where they are going (or what they could possibly become). The past is a critical component of what we are, but far more valuable is the sense of self-esteem and accomplishment that can be gained by acknowledging reality, learning from it and moving on to another adventure.

That is the issue I see most lacking in today’s emerging work force, yet I fear we are more to blame than those entering “our world” with the desire to be treated “like everyone else.”

My youngest son (now happily employed in a field he loves) once bemoaned the fact that he was the youngest in the family, working the most hours yet earning the least money. Should my compassionate, esteem-building reaction have been to say that we understood he was working hard and that we would help to offset his feelings of financial inadequacy by supplementing his income to a level that would be more appropriate? Was I wrong for saying that life isn’t always fair — that he should continue to develop himself to his highest potential so that he could feel good about what he did and what he earned in the future?

It seems that the desire to build a “positive self-esteem” has supplanted the need to identify and overcome the barriers that life places before us — both in our schools and workplaces — often at the expense of success and accomplishment.

Being involved in work force development and seeing students entering employment has allowed me to see the results of “self-esteem” being elevated to one of the more important aspects of education. It appears that teachers want students to feel better about their self-concept than about what they can accomplish. An elementary teacher once told us that it was her job to make everyone feel as though they were an equal contributor to the classes’ success: excluding nobody and leaving nobody behind.

While there is value in helping those who do not understand, should that help come at the expense of individual achievement? Some schools give little attention to proper spelling (“spell check will handle that”) and don’t worry about basic math concepts (“that’s what calculators are for”). In sporting events, schools tend to focus on the equality of playing time — regardless of an athlete’s ability — and on sportsmanship rather than on winning.

In moderation, these are not bad concepts. In practice, however, it seems that students are more often being rewarded for effort rather than accomplishment, receiving more praise for simply trying than for actually achieving. The result of this thinking was recently brought to my attention when a family friend contacted me for help finding a job in “marketing or human resource management.” Since he’d graduated from college, he didn’t feel the need to first learn the ropes — his education pre-qualified him to be a manager.

Business doesn’t do much better than schools at establishing independence or building self-esteem. We avoid confrontation by conducting performance reviews that establish marginal work patterns as being proficient (yet we always know who to let go when there is a downturn; their performance reviews just don’t often verify our knowledge). Giving an “across the board” pay increase minimizes friction but rewards mediocrity. Organizations develop workplace teams so that nobody is left out of the decision-making process, but the tactic often causes unnecessary delay in the implementation of “workable solutions.”

Our fervor to make people “feel good” can remove their motivation to accomplish more. Students receiving praise for working hard to almost get the right answer, or workers receiving a small raise for doing most of an assigned project tend to adopt that level of performance as acceptable. Why should they reach beyond where they are if they can receive praise and recognition for achieving the minimum? 

Self-esteem can influence what we accomplish but there are several common mistakes to avoid when constructively establishing and maintaining an individual’s self-concept:

  • Rewarding efforts (which may actually be leading toward failure) and/or assigning new responsibilities rather than recognizing and rewarding accomplishment (or addressing failure).

  • Placing unqualified or inexperienced individuals into positions they want that they have no proven ability to perform, rewarding their self-concept but potentially breeding frustration and failure (unless appropriate orientation and/or training is provided).

  • Praising an individual for trying hard with the hope that he or she will be encouraged to perform better in the future without any change in training or expectations. Such hollow praise often establishes a lower level of acceptable performance.

  • Treating people equally rather that equitably. People are created equal — but perhaps some are created “more equal” than others. We all have gifts and abilities that contribute differently to success and accomplishment. Treating people equally can minimize confrontation, but the practice often helps to retain the under-qualified, “reward the average” and de-motivate high achievers.

We have been told that a good self-concept breeds success. I would offer that success creates a good self-concept. We have been told that students and workers need to work as equals within teams to accomplish anything. I would offer that all teams need a leader — a collector of ideas or a champion — to accomplish change. We have been told that rewarding the process will enhance creativity, thereby minimizing the fear of failure. I would offer that rewarding an individual’s accomplishments while constructively addressing sub-standard efforts will foster creativity and encourage risk-taking behavior, potentially eliminating the fear of failure.

We often feel that it’s good to think about a person’s self-esteem. Perhaps it’s better to encourage their success.

David J. Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association, a not-for-profit provider of human resource solutions since 1939.

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