Decoding Confidence: Why and How to Raise Self-esteem in Employees?

Sun, Mar 22, 2009

Published (English)

It was a challenging project.  Five people from the most backward part of Nepalese life because they were Dalits, from remote areas but mostly because they were ‘poor things’ or in Nepali ‘Bichara’ , yet promising, with a sparkle of hope inside, showing in their eyes, were taken in as interns in a big INGO.  They would be taught basic official activities such as filing, running errands, typing, filling forms, sitting in meetings, field visits, making reports, writing proposals and the like.  In addition they would be given computer training and English language cum confidence building training.  The time period would be of 5 months. 


The success of this project named “Blessing” would be gauzed based on their computer literacy, their work efficiency and effectiveness, their ability to communicate in English, but mostly on their level of confidence.  Now how do we measure confidence?  And why does it matter so much, if at all?  Where does it fit in the equation of people management and the organizational bottom line? 


Confidence basics

But what is confidence?  The Oxford dictionary defines it thus, “firm trust; feeling of certainty, boldness”. 


There are two shops next to one another.  One shopkeeper ‘A’ is confident and the other ‘B’ is not confident.  Whom would you like to buy from? This is a rhetorical question and the answer is, without second thought, ‘A’ unless of course you are like the above INGO  on a mission looking out for people with low morale. However, unlike in this argument, in real life, no one comes with a banner around his neck written ‘confident’ or ‘not confident’. 


Still taking the argument further, surgeon X is confident and surgeon Y is not confident.  Yet both have similar levels of education, experience and expertise.  Whom would you prefer to be operated by?  Yes, I guessed so: Dr.X. 


The same holds true for managers and employees, isn’t it?  Would you like to work for a boss who is unsure of himself, who is unable to make eye-contact, who whispers instead of speaking out loud while giving direction, who has no opinion and who can’t decide?  Then, would you like to supervise a staff who seems he is about to pee in his pants as soon as he faces you, who hesitates, who shuns responsibility, who hides behind others, who doesn’t reply to your questions and who can’t challenge you when you are wrong as when calling ‘white’ what is in reality ‘black’? 


This is how we can determine how people in organizations are not confident.  Dr.Y could be identified as someone whose hands shake, who can’t decide whether to open up your stomach or brain in order to cure you, who can’t give a definite answer to your questions and who can’t explain the operation procedure clearly.  Who knows he may be a quack? 


Similarly, shopkeeper ‘B’ would be unsure of the price of the goods on the shelves; he would speak in broken sentences with a squeaky voice; he would not be able to describe his products; he would be out of words if the customer starts bargaining and deviating conversation to other topics like politics or gossips; he would not try to convince you into buying and will be relieved you left. 


Now we can identify people with no confidence from almost of lines of work.  But this disease of low self-esteem has its roots in student life and family life.  Parents send their children to good schools not so much that they gain higher marks in SLC but so that these schools build in them such confidence that they will be able to open all doors in life.  Families succeed when their members can relate to the world without fear, shame or doubt.   


A student with low self-esteem is easily recognizable.  He has got a slouch, a timid face; his eyes are almost invisible; she walks slowly as if she were on skates; she stays away from the crowd sticking with equally unconfident lots; she asks no question in class, and doesn’t answer back the teacher when he questions her; she sits too much like a picture; sometimes he is aggressive but like a scratched CD freezes unknowing, fearful. 


A family member with low-esteem is easy to spot too.  He doesn’t speak; she shuts herself in her room; she complains, ‘No body understands me’; he is bullied by others and he does nothing about it; he prefers computer games and cartoons to socializing; she is always missing. 


The organization and self-esteem

Running a business is a complex thing.  You need to have a great idea, a matching plan, superb execution and timely harvesting of the fruits of your labor (collection of account receivables, launching of new product/service, making deals).  That’s from your side.  From others you need capital, resources and most important – results.  The result of each person’s action must culminate into the fulfillment of the objectives of the organization.  Everyone has to produce results from the CEO to the clerk, from sales to accounts, from clients to suppliers. 


But how are results produced?  Performance.  If the personnel work hard, intelligently, smartly, efficiently and effectively, as planned, then results will be yielded.  How to have high performance?  The staffs need training, proper incentives, and experience.  But is that enough? 


There was a big ship.  The captain prided in that he had the best crew in the world.  Everyone knew their job well and was expert at his function. They were taught everything they needed to know. The captain was happy as they passed their test with flying colors.  He believed that his ship would reach the destination without any glitches.  As he sailed away from the port, and started giving orders, his crew obliged sheepishly.  Every thing was fine until a storm came.  They were trained to operate during storms too but suddenly everyone started to come to the captain as if in surrender before an almighty conqueror, asking him, “What to do?”  He gave instructions and off they went.  Then they came back for more ‘orders’.  Soon the captain was exhausted having to repeat himself to everyone.  Soon he started to solve problems himself.  As a result, everyone waited for the captain to come and save him or her.  In a rush he made many wrong adjustments.  He crew knew mistakes were being made as he was fixing those programs in the computers.  But they didn’t have the guts to speak out. 


At sea, a huge iceberg was approaching.  Someone had seen that from the deck.  However fearful of being accused of causing the accident, he fled from the cockpit like an ostrich that hides its head in the sand when in danger.  He thought he was safe, other crews thought they were in the good hands of the captain, the captain thought he was doing the right thing by helping out and going out of the way in the process. 


Finally, the captain went to take back his position.  He was alarmed at the sight of the monstrous iceberg approaching.  It wasn’t supposed to be here.  The ship was off course: but how?  Why wasn’t he informed?  Why didn’t anybody blow the siren?  In a mad attempt he tried to steer the ship.  The sharp turn alarmed everybody, making them freeze.  In the earlier rush, the captain had set the wrong programs for the brakes and rudders.  That too failed.  The ship hit the iceberg.  Everyone panicked.  Still, no one took charge.  All sank to the bottom of the ocean. 


The ship can be compared to an organization.  The captain is the CEO.  The crew is the employees.  In this story, the crew was supposed to perform well and thus take the ship to the destination safely.  So what went wrong? 


Something was missing.  It was confidence.  They had the skill, the knowledge and the experience but no self-esteem.  They acted with the wrong belief, “I am not good enough to handle crisis.  I will screw things up, so I mustn’t initiate.  I don’t want to burn my fingers, let the boss take the honors. I don’t want to pass for over-smart and put my neck on the line.  I don’t need to be hero.” 


Such incorrect attitude tricks the boss to think he is a savior and his employees are damsels in distress.  This is a quite appealing to chivalrous teenagers looking for fast love, but to the head of an organization, it may easily mean his downfall and that of his organization like in the story of the ship.


The point I am making is to get results desired performance is not enough.  Self-esteem must be high also. 


I get impatient when I visit a restaurant or a business and the waiter or employee behaves as if I am going to eat him up.  They can’t decide on anything, and get lost excusing themselves to call up their supervisors.  Repeat this over thousands of transactions and you have a sinking ship. 


Imagine the boss is in a bad mood.  Then there is a bad news like a client who comes in with a complaint.  The employee, Nare, with low self-esteem will be stuck having to choose between the worse of two evils.  He has the skill to solve the problem of the client: he has done it many times before.  But before that he must be able to stand in front of the raging customer, calm him and ask him to bring the product.  So he excuses himself to call the boss.  Midway Nare remembers the fierce face and tone of the boss.  All that is needed is for him to come down and pacify the angry man, then Nare can get on with the repair work.  Such a simple task, seems like a Herculean feat for Nare because he doesn’t have the confidence.  For our Nare the world ends here. 


However for the organization it is a much sadder ending.  Nare will get lost in the office.  The customer will be frustrated of waiting.  He will swear some more and then will go off.  The boss will get a call from the office of the customer about the poor service quality of his organization.  His head will blow off.  Volcano of swearing and abuse will erupt from his mouth and spill on his employees.  Like the people of Pompeii, they will be turned into statues of still lower self-esteem.  A negative spiral or a vicious circle has spun into existence.  Complaints rise, sales decrease, expenses go up, profits fall; people are miserable, no one trusts anybody, individuals play safe at the cost of the whole, actions are delayed, back logs increase, wastes increase; the boss is depressed, over-worked, stressed, fatigued; the organization is doomed, customers if any are trapped. 


The confidence pill

Now that we have no doubt that self-esteem is as important as performance to get the desired results of management, the question is how?  Is confidence something people are born with or is it developed?  Is self-worth harnessed by others or one-self? 


As a baby every one of us were confident.  Then for some of us something went wrong like unwise parenting.  We got scolded unnecessarily, we were injected with syringes of fright as a deterrent against doing harmful things, we weren’t trusted, and we were bullied or too pampered.  Then at school we were a bit slow and thus we were given last priority; others began ridicule you.  You ganged up with either your own type or toughies.  Either path reinforced your sense of insecurity.  One time you asked a question in class, and the teacher did not answer, or everyone laughed.  You decided never to be embarrassed again by asking questions.  One time you volunteered to help but you got turned down.  It felt bad and you never volunteered again.  Slowly, gradually you lost confidence. 


For some the story of how their confidence was lost is heartbreaking like child abuse, death of parents, failure in exams, tragedy and rejection of visa to go overseas; or worse it could be a wrong-doing or sin committed by oneself and its subsequent self-punishment. 


But do not despair- the story is not finished.  The second part of this story reads, “Confidence regained”.  Take the following steps to help employees with low self-esteem:


  1. When you ask them questions, do not settle for ‘no answers’.  Coax them into replying.  Smile. It helps.
  2. After you give them directions, force them to repeat what they understood.
  3. If you notice they did something right, show your appreciation verbally. 
  4. If they do something wrong, don’t tell them directly.  Start by asking for permission to point out their blunder.  Once they accept your solicitation, tell gently.
  5. If there are peers who are very confident who tend to mock them, reprimand the confident ones in private and enroll them in encouraging the weak ones. 
  6. Show them you care by giving them time to understand. 
  7. Entice them into asking questions. 
  8. Pump your faith in them with intent look in their eyes.  Hypnosis of this kind works wonders in raising self-worth. 
  9. Be generous in teaching them.  Remember these people have missed many fundamental blocks of normal learning because they failed to ask questions to clear doubts and no body bothered to check it out. 
  10. Don’t be domineering if you realize they don’t know rudimentary things.  Don’t tire of imparting knowledge.  Once they get the crucial blocks of learning, they will stand on their own feet of knowledge.  Communicate that, demand that.    
  11. Give them work they can complete.  Give them a taste of success.
  12. If they fail, ask them to repeat the task until they make it.   
  13. Have the whole group tell them in unison, “You can do it.”
  14. Show kindness, keen interest and compassion (not pity) on them. 
  15. Finally, give them this mantra to recite, “I am the best.”  Hindi movies don’t give us entertainment alone, they teach us how to build our confidence too, like this song does in one of Sharukh Khan’s movies. 


By completing these steps, the project “Blessing” was a success: the ‘5 Weaklings’ transformed into the ‘Fantastic 5’.  Two shy mice metamorphosed into dignified swans, a violent tiger transformed into a brotherly elephant (leader and caretaker of the pack), a modest rabbit turned into a well-respected lion, a delicate cat changed into a glorious leopard. 


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