The concept of self-esteem was introduced in the book Principles of Psychology by M.D. William James in 1890. Since this introduction, social science research about what self-esteem means has reached epic proportions, and psychological research into self-esteem and its relationships in organisational change is also beginning to thrive.
As a change analyst, I continually note that the concept of organisational change resistance is often used by people to dismiss potentially valid employee concerns about proposed changes and sometimes for even blaming the less esteemed for unsuccessful change efforts. I have also noted how change stakeholders (employees, employers and investors) react to strategic organisational change goals with varying degrees of motivation ranging from an almost blind zealousness to complete apathy.
The first world popular theory that organisational change resistance is essentially about employee fear of the unknown seems to be firmly embedded in the practices of numerous change managers globally. Yet, I’m not convinced that fear alone is why individuals seem to reject organisational changes and for that matter neither are many human resource professionals. I say seem to reject because my opinion is based on my analysis of the situation arising from my own professional self-esteem. In my way of thinking, should William James be taken seriously, self-esteem is all about the pursuit of professional success and to be successful, in accordance to 19th Century advocates of high self-esteem, one needs to have a plenty of it.
In the words of William James:
“ I, who for the time have staked my all on being a psychologist, am mortified if others know much more psychology than I. But I am contented to wallow in the grossest ignorance of Greek. My deficiencies there give me no sense of personal humiliation at all. Had I 'pretensions' to be a linguist, it would have been just the reverse. So we have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has 'pitted' himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn't do that nothing else counts. He is to his own regard as if he were not, indeed he is not.
Yonder puny fellow, however, whom every one can beat, suffers no chagrin about it, for he has long ago abandoned the attempt to 'carry that line,' as the merchants say, of self at all. With no attempt there can be no failure; with no failure no humiliation. So our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities; a fraction of which our pretensions are the denominator and the numerator our success"
My interpretation of this is that to have high self-esteem one needs to be positively pretentious and personally competitive and to have low self-esteem one needs to be negatively pretentious and personally competitive. The ideals are the same with the differential outcome being how many enabling accolades each actor receives when sharing their self-esteem with others.
Harvard Psychology Lecturer, William James instructed his class that self-esteem was about perceptions of success, be they positive or negative, pessimistic or optimistic. Self-esteem did not discriminate. It represented its values and sense of worthiness with a defense that only had success in mind. William James considered the pursuit of this success rested in accordance to the intrinsic personality values of the self as consciously expressed. What this says to me is that self-esteem is open for group interpretation, depending on where you are standing within the group, in relation to every other differentiation of self-esteem. However, irrespective of whether your intrinsic explanatory style is pessimistic or optimistic, the goal of self-esteem is to ensure that no matter what its’ ambition, the ambition is worth achieving.
It is a reality that modern social science researchers are continuing to look for that common denominator that will link what high self-esteem and low self-esteem means in terms of individuality, culture and citizenship in all walks of life, not just in organisations. The internet is alive with all nationalities, sharing information about the importance of high self-esteem, and I don’t disagree with them because self-esteem is an upwardly mobile emotive, even if the up is for down. I also think that self-esteem gains, in organisational change psychology, is very much about the ability of stakeholders to reach and honour agreements. Agreements to change are very much dependent on the amalgamation of the self-esteem ambitions of all organisational change stakeholders, not just a few of them. In this way, every single stakeholder has an important communication role to play in influencing another on how self-esteem should be interpreted. It may well be that focusing on those who agree with the change strategy is a good starter for ten. How the ten then influence the thousands is now the issue because, even though an organisation is about working for “the man”, how that is interpreted in an individual’s private self-esteem is anyone’s guess.
In John Kotter’s 1996 book, Leading Change, he cites only 30 percent of the change programs he analysed as successful. In 2008, the global management consultants, McKinsey, revealed that of the 3,199 executives they surveyed, only one organisational change in three assessed their organisations change efforts as successful. In terms of self-esteem, do you think these reports of change success reflect organisational values or the values of those involved in the analysis?
In 2003, in the article The Psychology of Change, McKinsey’s Emily Lawson and Colin Price suggested that employees need the following to help them to change their behaviours:
- a compelling story about why the change is needed
- a changed behaviour role model
- system reinforcements in line with the desired behavioural change/s, and
- the skills to make the desired change/s.
As organisational change stakeholders are employees, employers and investors, focusing just on employees ignores two-thirds of change influencers. There is also the employee who wears other hats of investor (company shares) or employer (middle manager). Where would this double or triple entry stakeholder fit in? Would the Lawson and Price employee checklist meet the multiple stakeholder needs of a double or triple entry individual? Could single entry change accounting be the reason why about a third of change organisations surveyed reported unsuccessful transitions?
In terms of self-esteem what do change stakeholders look like? In William James day, they all looked like actors.
The Australian National Competency Standards for Organisational Change Management lists the capabilities of a change agent as having the ability to initiate, plan, analyse, design, implement, manage, monitor, test, review and finalise a change project: But what if the change project is never able to be finalised because of the esteem impacts experienced, not only by the change project coordinator, but by a few of the change project stakeholders. Would not being able to finalise a change strategy on time be more about failing to meet the self-esteem goals of non-participant stakeholders or are all stakeholders participating in the change, despite how they are being interpreted? For example: what if the “non-participant” stakeholders are esteemed members of the organisations hierarchy; What impact do you think this might have on their followers? If the strategic goals of the change plan are not being implemented by the people at the strategic planning table, what do you think this says about the change plan? I think it says that the plan is a success in accordance to the esteemed agreement of the strategic players.
The term esteem simply means the worth or value of regard one holds in opinion or judgement. In other words the opinions and judgments spoken and unspoken, of stakeholders can and do influence, the success of, a change management project in terms of its success in the eyes of all of its stakeholders; Not just the ones at the strategic planning table. However, should the plan be what I might classify as a change “Furphy” arising from say, shared self-esteem values of being ‘seen’ to be acting in accordance to say, a popular change theory, then I would definitely analyse the situation as a “Trouble at Mill”.
The more organisational change project stakeholders there are, the more varied the spoken and non-spoken influences also are. Is it no wonder then, that organisational change projects of bureaucratic proportions can end up looking like the right hand doesn't know what the left foot is doing? What happens when an organisation discovers its change plan has become organised change chaos? If organisational change does depend on the self-esteem of its stakeholders, chaos might boost the self-esteem of some and drop the self-esteem of others. Here, it would be reasonable to assert that emotional cost has just entered the room. Was it there all of the time? My guess is that it was.
Wikipedia on self-esteem mentions that self-esteem is about respect. It says
“every human being, with no exception, for the mere fact to be it, is worthy of unconditional respect of everybody else ”
Respect is a nice word. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any arguments against it. What is interesting about respect is that the focus of modern organisational change isn't so much on respecting all of the change stakeholders, but only some of them. However, which of those stakeholders deserves, or does not deserve, the respect that their self-esteem believes is its’ due, remains unclear.
The University of Adelaide (AU), in its' Leading Change, Transition & Transformation, respects its change management guide for university staff as one that is
“controlled and systematic”.
It promotes one of its goals of change management as
“the alignment of people and culture with strategic shifts in the organisation”,
and it challenges this alignment with the aim of overcoming emotional resistance to change.
AU also insists that their new arrangements must build in the
“capability to respond to future change”,
thereby offering challenge and commitment to a world of changes.
As all educators and students are ongoing learning change agents, the goal of continual change, for a learning environment, is a reasonable one. Yet, I couldn't help feeling that the “transformation is the key to success” change strategies of William Bridges, who headlines his website with
“ chaos is the primal state of pure energy for every true new beginning ”
might be a little reformative for a learning environment brimming with multiple intelligences, including the emerging leadership talents of AU’s entrepreneurial students of innovation.
Here, I found myself asking the question about what is transformation when enveloped in the self-esteem pursuits of reformative change stakeholders? Does it mean empowerment of the most disadvantaged, where, in the words of Margaret Mead
“ each diverse human gift will find a fitting place ”?
Or, does it mean ongoing revolutionary efforts as given by AU in its change leadership guide as
“ the mental and emotional psychological process that people must undergo to relinquish old arrangements and embrace new ones”
If yes, to auld AU, then transformation must also be about the self-esteem of human change, if differentiation is to be taken into consideration. For isn't transformation about the behavioural ability of the self to influence the cognitions of understanding and memory in the self? If this is true, how does one intrinsic self change the psychology of another intrinsic self when both selves are being impacted on by a system that is in favour of revolutionary change? How should one employee facilitate change with another? Should they contribute to an organisational change andragogy that fosters a sharing of adult intelligences or should they simply bully away?
The multiple intelligences theory of developmental psychologist Howard E. Gardner states that human beings have several different ways of learning and processing information, but those methods are independent of one another, thereby leading to multiple intelligence considerations as opposed to one overall general intelligence factor. In other words, there is not one but many psychological controlling factors in change and in my view those factors are grounded under multiple self-esteems.
Gardner's theory describes linguistic, logic-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily / kin-aesthetic interpersonal, intra-personal, and naturalistic human intelligences, and he is presently researching a ninth, existential intelligence that suggests the ability to see what you're working with. Should all nine intelligences be linked to self-esteem, what could this say about what change stakeholders are working with? Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis might offer some ideas.
As a case study, imagine a not for profit, volunteer governed, bureaucracy that has, as part of its strategic communication change plan, the rolling out of desk top publishing software for everyone in the organisation, irrespective of individual self-esteem, learning capabilities or employment contract. As the IT Officer, it is your job to ensure that in 30 days time all employees are able to contribute to the staff newsletter named “What’s This?” using the new publishing package that you are now installing on all desktop computers. If you were also the change/transition project coordinator of this strategic plan, how would you respond to queries and complaints? My guess is that you might begin by tapping into your own sense of self-esteem, about your capability to change for others.
The Self-Esteem Construct
In the 1960’s, sociologist Morris Rosenberg defended self-esteem as referring to an individual’s overall self-evaluation of competencies. Rosenberg held the view that self-esteem is about what people think about themselves as individuals.
In contrast, the 1970’s industrial psychologist Abraham K. Korman rated self-esteem as the degree in which the individual rates their personal competency in terms of its satisfactions. During the 1980’s, social psychologists Pelham and Swann discussed self-esteem as being about how much an individual liked who and what they were.
In the 1990’s, ex-teacher and social science masters graduate, Alphie Kohn discovered that high self-esteem appeared to offer no guarantee of inclining people away from anti-social behaviour: And that self-esteem promotion in schools seemed encourage, rather than discourage, a self-absorption bordering on narcissism. In his view, the self-esteem self-help movement of the 1990’s was more about how much the individual was able to feel better about themselves as opposed to caring about someone else. How these generational influences have translated into the 21st Century is that self-esteem is now flourishing. Yet, social psychologists, like Professor Baumeister are talking about how today’s self-esteem studies are revealing that too much self-esteem invokes depression as well as narcissism and even violence.
So it seems, that advancements in the assessment of self-esteem also reveal how much self-esteem has changed since the 1960’s. These changes are impacting on organisational change resistance issues in 2013, which could be one reason why self-esteem is still on modern change management research tables.
In 2013, social psychologists might agree that it is perfectly reasonable to assume that people, high in global self-esteem, would say things like “I am a person of worth, on an equal plane with others” and “I am satisfied with myself no matter what you think “. How sayings like these are being embraced in organisational settings, might also be considered as why organisational change today is not working as well as it should have done yesterday.
Self-esteem, as a construct, also develops around other dimensions like the ethical and moral-self. Developmental psychologists regard self-esteem as the evaluation that persons make about themselves, that expresses a self-judgment of approval, disapproval, and/or personal worth. Many social science researchers further suggest that a universal human desire exists to protect and enhance one's self-worth and that positive relationships with peers is linked to self-esteem. Yet, would this be true for self-esteem that has evolved into narcissism. Could the evolution of self-esteem, since the 1960’s, offer some insight into why human depression and corporate psychosis is on the increase?
Without moving away from William James original premise that self-esteem is a pretentious act and that to achieve it one must focus on success; I think it reasonable to consider that modern self-esteem is about the beliefs people hold about themselves which represent the individual’s sense of self-worth and acceptance: and this might simply be “fake it until you make it”.
I also think it reasonable to consider that self-esteem is the ability of an individual to accomplice themselves, with value acceptances of self-worth, in accordance to what the individual recognises as deserving. It may well be that the individual believes they do not deserve the desk top publishing package, you have just installed on their computer, for self-esteem reasons beyond your gifts of insight.
When in pursuit of self-esteem, individuals can sometimes be seen to be creating the opposite of what they socio-economically need to survive, like the learning of a new organisational skill, irrespective of whether it is or it isn't in their job description. What may seem like a resistance to the introduction of desk top publishing, might simply be a call of self-esteem in relation to the individuals perceived ability to learn as opposed to their true ability to learn. It may also be a professional integrity issue where desk top newsletter publishing is considered not to be a priority in the traditional culture of the profession being enacted e.g.: taxation accounting.
In 2003, when corporate favouritism for high self-esteem was still revered as the reason why projects succeeded, and low self-esteem as the reason why they did not; social psychologist, Roy Baumeister presented research that turned the perceived benefits of running a high self-esteemed project on its head. Baumeister’s research revealed that it didn't matter whether a person had high or low self-esteem, because both interfered with the ability to learn a new skill. One of the reasons he gave was in his argument that the importance of self-esteem lies in what people do to achieve boosts and avoid drops in self-esteem in their daily lives. Self-esteem is important because increases in it feel good, and decreases in it feel bad, and it doesn't matter what level of self-esteem an individual has, what is important is how that level of self-esteem is stimulated.
In the bureaucratic desk top publishing case, the self-esteem of one person may be boosted by the introduction of the software package, while the self-esteem of another may be dropped. In Baumeister ‘s professional view of the world, people adopt the goal of validating their abilities or qualities in the areas where their self-worth is invested. Should the resource change not validate the abilities and qualities of the person receiving the resource, their self-esteem will feel like it is being dropped, irrespective of whether the goal is considered by other stakeholders as good or bad. As self-esteem has the intrinsic goal of validating personal worth, in relation to professional competencies, individuals faced with changes, may find themselves reacting to those changes in ways that are destructive or self-destructive, despite themselves. In this way, it now seems that organisational change doesn't so much evoke fear in its initial stages, rather it stimulates self-esteem into feeling boosted or dropped.
Social Psychologist Jennifer Crocker is presently researching the emotional reasons why people are often oblivious to the costs of pursuing self-esteem, especially the impact costs it has on others. In the desk top publishing case, if the change was initiated to boost the self-esteem of an IT professional, what do you think the implications of that boost might have on the employee who believes they do not need that boost to fulfill their role as an account receivables clerk?
Jennifer Crocker also considers that people differ in what they believe they must be or do to be a worthy and valuable citizen. Her work appears to agree with Baumeister in that people differ in what types of events boost or drop their sense of self-esteem: And that success or failure, in the pursuit of self-esteem’s values of intrinsic worth, are who people believe themselves to holistically be.
It sounds to me like people are both the victims and perpetrators of acts of self-esteem. The generationally varied, professional, social science views of self-esteem suggest to me that the desire for self-esteem, and the goal to validate self-esteem, could well be perceived as change resistance in the initial stages of an organisational change program or project.
As there is no, universally accepted, social science theory of self-esteem, self-esteem as a hypothesis of organisational change resistance both holds and does not hold water, depending on who the container belongs to and what resources are available to make or patch up holes.
Today, I think the concept of organisational change resistance probably says more about the self–esteem of change stakeholder’s than suspicions about fear, yet this cannot be validated because it seems the more self-esteem is researched, the more unreliable predictors of self-esteem seem to be. Since 1890, William James view of self-esteem, as essentially being an act, has been tested and re-tested by professional social science researchers globally. The result being that no one is perfectly sure what self-esteem truly means to those who have it. Common sense seems to say that self-esteem is not something that you have or don’t have. Rather, it is a way of experiencing the world when you are using your resources to the best of your ability. While letting go of the goal of having self-esteem may be seen by some to facilitate autonomy, competence, relatedness, and self-regulation, facing one’s fears and anxieties in self-esteem seems to be all about the pursuit of self-esteem in accordance to the intrinsic values of worth held by self-esteem stakeholders. In this way, self-esteem (also known as self-efficacy) presents as an important consideration, worthy of respect, when striving to achieve organisational change success.
One way of approaching the self-esteem needs of organisational change stakeholders is Rationale Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). The founder of REBT, Albert Ellis (1913 – 2007), rated self-esteem as over-generalized, perfectionist and grandiose thinking. In his view, the alternative to self-esteem is unconditional self acceptance and unconditional other-acceptance which, quite possibly, might be found through self-controlled professional acts of mutual respect. How REBT is able to be applied in organisational change resistant settings is discussed in Managing Change: A Corporate Application of Rational-Emotive Therapy by A.R. Miller and R.J Yeager, Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy. Summer, 1993, Volume 11, Issue 2, pp 65-76. © Chris Tyne, 2013.
- The Principles of Psychology by William James http://www.bahaistudies.net/asma/principlesofpsychology.pdf
- Self-Esteem Within the Work and Organizational Context: A Review of the Organization-Based Self-Esteem Literature by Jon L. Pierce and Donald G. Gardner http://ejournal.narotama.ac.id/files/Self%20Esteem%20in%20Work%20Context.pdf
- The Costly Pursuit of Self-Esteem by Jennifer Crocker Lora E. Park http://rcgd.isr.umich.edu/seminars/Winter2007/Crocker%20Park%20Costly_Pursuit_of_Self_Esteem%20(2).pdf
- A Theory of Self-Esteem by Alicia D. Cast and Peter J. Burke http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3086465?uid=3737536&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21101959310791
- The Truth About Self-Esteem by Alfie Kohn http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/tase.htm
- The Psychology of Change Management by Emily Lawson and Colin Price http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/Organization/Change_Management/The_psychology_of_change_management_1316
- Rethinking Self-Esteem: why nonprofits should stop pushing self-esteem and start endorsing self-control by Roy Baumeister http://imaginefirestone.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/RethinkingSelf-Esteem.pdf
- Leading Change, Transition & Transformation http://www.adelaide.edu.au/hr/strategic/leading_change_toolit.pdf
- Change Matters: making a difference in higher education by G.Scott http://www.uws.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/6892/AUQF_04_Paper_Scott.pdf
- Self-Esteem Development Across the Lifespan by R.W. Robins, D.W. Richard and K.H Trzesniewski. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/9bc5r8nd
- Trouble at Mill defined http://oald8.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/dictionary/trouble-at-ta-mill
- Furphy defined http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Furphy
- Working for the Man by Roy Orbison http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9vdCOMPndY
- Rosenberg’s Self Esteem Scale http://www.chan6es.com/2/post/2013/03/could-you-change-your-self-esteem-if-you-wanted-to.html.