It’s a fact, no matter how hard we try to deny it, that as humans we create and base our self-esteem on outside influences. Every great motivational speaker from Napoleon Hill to Denis Waitley to Tony Robbins taught us that we must take control of our self-esteem and what programs it if we are to be successful.

To have this discussion, we need a working definition of self-esteem. Our friends at the American Heritage Dictionary define it as ‘confidence.’ With this definition, I’m not too impressed with our friends. We find it easier to understand if you deal with each side of the hyphen.

The word esteem, when used as a verb (as it is here), means ‘to hold in high regard.’ When we give something esteem, we hold it in high regard and give it great importance. When you put the two together, your definition becomes “to hold one’s self in high regard.”

This is certainly easier said than done. Most troubled people are such because on the outside they profess to hold themselves in high regard, but on the inside, they know the truth. You probably know a lot of these people. These are people who try to put on an outward display of their positive self-esteem. This effort actually induces more stress on them than if they would just face the truth.

In the last chapter, we discussed the culture cycle (programming, beliefs, values, attitudes, emotions, and behaviors). You could use this model for the development of a person’s self-esteem as well. All the psychologists tell us that our fears and behaviors are learned over time. As a matter of fact, as a baby, we are born with just two fears – the fear of heights and the fear of sudden loud noises. How many of us still have just those two fears today?

As people, we want to belong to something – a group, a team, a club, a gang, a church. We spend our whole lives trying to fit in. The programming we receive in life is what shapes who we are. Part of that programming is the impact of your company’s culture. There is a definite connection between what we do for a living and our self-esteem.

The problem is that we learn this connection between our self-esteem and our job very young in life and it becomes more than a connection to us – it becomes a definition of who we are. This is a very powerful statement, one that needs proof.

I wanted to test this presupposition, so we visited a 2nd grade class of children one day to talk about “Career Day.” If you do not have kids of your own or your children have warped your mind so that you cannot remember back that far, these 2nd graders are about eight years old.

Before we had any discussions, we told them we wanted to play a game. We pre-made five signs and tied strings to the top corners so the signs could be draped around the children’s necks. On each of the signs was a job type. We hung one card around each child’s neck and asked them to line up in order of importance. Who did they think was the most important? This person should stand on the left and work their ranking to the right.

The signs read:

Doctor, Teacher, Lawyer, Garbage Man, and Farmer

Here is what happened. The two children labeled Doctor and Lawyer started to argue and push a little as to who was most important. They both felt they were the most important and should be first. But the teacher knew that he was not as important as the doctor or lawyer and immediately took his place third in line without saying a word. The farmer, knowing that people who wore ties or dressed up for work were more important, took her place fourth in line. The teacher and the farmer both stood quietly not saying a word. We looked for the garbage man, but he was not in line. Instead, the little boy with the label “Garbage Man” was sitting to the side quietly sobbing.

As a tear ran down his face, I questioned him what was wrong. “Please, please, I don’t want to be the garbage man! I want to be important!”culture and self esteem

If we were looking for proof that a person draws the majority of their self-esteem from his or her job, it was there in the teary eyes of that little boy. I have conducted this experiment other times mixing up the signs. I have tried nurse in place of a doctor, factory worker in place of a farmer and expanded into third graders. Each time the results were the same. There were always two kids fighting over; first, the middle children knew their place, and the last place person always cried foul.

Where do we learn this? Television? Movies? Video Games? Role models? Parents? The answer is D – all the above. The impact all of this media or personal contact has on a child’s life only gets stronger as we grow older. And with the advent of tablets and other mobile devices and video games, it’s just getting worse. But the purpose of this book is not to address this problem with our society. I’ll save that for another book (and probably another author.)

The important part for you to remember is that people draw the majority of their self-esteem from their job. This means the more fulfilling your employees feel their role is in your company, the higher their self-esteem. And we all know the connection between a high self-esteem and work productivity and quality.

It’s important to know about this connection for two reasons.

  1. It helps you to understand why the culture cycle is so important. As addressed in the last chapter, when you try to influence your people and your culture by coming into the middle of the cycle, you only make matters worse. You may have a temporary effect, but the patterns are developed already.
  2. Studies show that people will protect their self-esteem at all costs. This does not mean they will keep a healthy self-esteem. People will put all of their energies into trying not to lose ground or, in essence, maintaining their current self-esteem rather than trying to raise it.

As people, we eventually accept the role we have in life and spend our days rationalizing it and convincing ourselves that this is the way life’s supposed to be. Psychologists call this our comfort zone. The hardest thing to do is push someone out of his or her comfort zone and get them to raise performance. But this is exactly what you are doing. I remember a CEO telling me one time in the middle of assisting him with his company’s culture change “I’m so far out of my comfort zone, I can’t even see it anymore.” That told me we were on the right track.

Follow this pattern. If the culture cycle is the development of your culture, then it stands to reason that your current culture is somewhat of a comfort zone for your employees. They may moan, gripe and complain about their current work conditions, but these people could get 40 hours pay for 30 hours worked and still find something to complain about. Why? Because that is who they are. This is the regard they hold for themselves. That is what their current state of self-esteem is telling them. And let’s be honest, often times people become “comfortable” when they are complaining.

So if a person draws the majority of his or her self-esteem from his or her job and their job is actually defined by your corporate culture, then their self-esteem is determined and impacted by your culture. As if you weren’t carrying enough weight on your shoulders, we have now added the self-esteem of every employee to the load!

We make this connection to help you understand where the employees are coming from. They will resist you in your efforts. Guarantee it. This helps you figure out why. We will deal with this point more in the last chapter “Getting to the Heart of the Matter.”

Please know, I am not telling you all of this to make you amateur psychologists. Do not go out and buy a couch to place in your office for your next set of employee reviews! Ultimately, a person is in control of his or her self-esteem. The culture and the company will definitely impact it, but to what level is still up to the individual.

I have heard many stories about people who work jobs that most of us would consider demeaning, but they have a smile on their face and take such pride in their work. Bill Pollard in The Soul of the Firm describes the majority of his company’s people as being this way. ServiceMaster cleans toilets as a business. But the people who do it, work with pride because they are members of a culture which values them as people and strives to maintain an environment for their employee’s development of a healthy self-esteem.

These are the types of people you want on your Culturrific! team. They have learned to disconnect who they are from what they do. Unfortunately, you cannot go out and fire everyone and start over. If you could, you would not be reading this book.

You must understand what you are dealing with when you start to mess with corporate culture. Those 2nd graders did not learn to devalue someone who picks up garbage from school. They learned it from their peers, media, and family. It took years of influence and culture to make the rules. The hierarchical structure “ring cultures” have taught us all that there are two types of jobs— menial jobs and important (glamorous) jobs.

By the way, a “ring culture” is one where the company promotes from within and the only way to get to the top is by kissing the ring of the top guys in respect for their making it. Sort of a Godfather thing. If you have this type of culture, I pray for you. Someone who spent 20 years kissing everyone’s ring to get there will not easily give up the pleasure of now being the “ring kissee.” They will be a big challenge for you. Why? You know the answer. They draw their self-esteem from the amount of kisses they receive.

Self-esteem is linked to service and experience

If people draw the majority of their self-esteem from their job, then you have a responsibility to build a culture that allows them to do so—a culture of nurturing, praising and accountability. If your people are going to serve the customer the way you want them to, they need to feel good about themselves when they do it. It’s the key to the customer experience.

A few years ago, a company by the name of Performance Group Inc. in Dallas, Texas did a survey of 1,000 people who had just changed jobs. They asked these people to tell them why they left their last position. Guess what the number one answer was?

If you are being honest, you probably said money, as did I at first. But the overwhelming answer was “lack of recognition.” What were these people saying? They were saying they worked in a culture that did not value them and did nothing for their self-esteem, so they left. (By the way, this survey was of Gen X and Baby Boomer workers. In the next chapter, I’ll talk about how the answer is still the same with the next generations.)

Think about yourself. You might be working a position now that pays less than the last one you held. Why did you do this? The same reason these people in the survey did. You want to work for a place that allows you to come home to your family and be proud of what you do and who you do it for.

The person is always more important  than the position.

 Remember that!

This pattern started when you were a little kid. You wanted to be an astronaut or a fireman or a ballerina – you wanted to be someone important and what made them important was what they did for a living. Make what your company and its employees do for a living the most important job in the world. There are no small parts, just small actors.

The real resolution is for a person to learn NOT to draw their self-esteem from their job. But this book is not about what you can’t control, but what you can! Culture change is an odds game. You must play the odds or percentages sometimes. I put this chapter in this book to help you understand the basis for many of the things that I suggest. An experience culture must be a self-esteem-enhancing machine. Every policy, every award, every speech, every process you put into place will impact the self-esteem of your employees.

As you try to capture the hearts and heads of your employees, you will find that the main reason you only get their hands and feet can be traced to the regard they hold of themselves. You have adults who have spent their lives being programmed to settle for less than what they are worth and for less than they can achieve. And more importantly for you, less than what they can deliver!

A group of scientists built a fish tank for an experiment that had a clear wall in the center dividing the tank into two sections. On one side they placed a plump, juicy mackerel. On the other side, they placed a barracuda. The Barracuda could see the mackerel, but it could not get to it. Within the first minute, the hungry barracuda spotted the mackerel and swam headfirst towards it and plowed into the center pane of glass. He swam away dizzied for a while, but when the barracuda regained its senses, he went for the mackerel again! And like before, he slammed into the center pane of glass. This had continued for quite some time before the barracuda decided “This hurts!” (It takes people a few knocks in the head sometimes to get it as well.)

The barracuda’s behavior began to change. It would see the mackerel and swim headfirst towards it, but it would turn right before it hit the center glass. This became a pattern – the barracuda would see the mackerel, think “lunch!” and swim towards it, but right before it knocked its head, it would turn and swim away. This occurred enough times that eventually the scientists were able to take the center pane of glass out of the tank so that the Barracuda could get to the mackerel and guess what happened? The barracuda swam right up to the same point, turned and swam away! It kept swimming right up to that point, turning and swimming away never getting the mackerel.

As people, we have been conditioned or programmed to settle for less. I know that it is extraordinary to suggest a company be responsible for an employee’s self-esteem, but there you go again buying that couch for your office. I am not supporting that you try to influence or control their self-esteem. I want to make you aware of the undercurrents at play in a culture change. When you encounter resistance or reluctance to your new ideas, understand where it is coming from. The source is much deeper than plain stubbornness.

If you want to capture their hearts and their heads, you must develop a culture that cares for them as people and provides a nurturing environment for their self-esteem.