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It’s easy to think about self esteem as a flexible thing: we all feel more confident some days than others, after all. But low self esteem is usually deep-rooted and all tangled up with the way we see ourselves, which stays fairly consistent unless we go through a significant life event that shakes our core beliefs.
That’s not to say it needs to be permanent. Low self esteem can be improved gradually with some honest self awareness and a bit of support from the people around us. In this guide, we’ll look at how to manage someone who struggles with self doubt at work, and ways to help them to build confidence in their own abilities.
What is self esteem?
Self esteem is the way we see, value and believe in ourselves. It describes whether we generally look at ourselves in a positive or negative light. And with convincing links between low self esteem and anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions, it’s an important building block for our overall mental health and wellbeing. Broadly, we can define three flavours of self esteem:
Low self esteem means:
Thinking about yourself negatively and failing to recognise your strengths and achievements. Feeling inadequate or lacking the confidence to assert yourself.
Healthy self esteem means:
Feeling comfortable and confident in yourself, your decisions and your abilities. Being aware of your own limitations and feeling able to forgive yourself when something goes wrong.
Excessive self esteem means:
Arrogance or overconfidence in your beliefs and abilities, which can cause problems in your relationships, and contribute to impulsive or risky behaviour.
There are lots of factors that can contribute to low self esteem, from childhood experiences of bullying or abuse to experiencing prejudice or health problems as an adult. One related theory is called the ‘locus of evaluation,’ a term which was invented by Carl Rogers, who pioneered a person-centred approach to counselling in the 50s.
Rogers described an internal or external ‘locus’ (place) of evaluation. People operating with an internal locus tend to trust their own instincts and judgement, whereas anyone with an external locus relies on validation from other people. Our locus of evaluation isn’t fixed, but our default position is something that’s learned in childhood and then reinforced as an adult, according to Rogers (and that was long before social media made us all clamour for approval from invisible online friends). An external locus is linked to lower self esteem, and it’s part of the reason that reassurance from peers and managers can have a big impact on confidence in the workplace – more on that later.
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What does low self esteem at work look like?
People can express low self esteem in plenty of ways. Some are easy for a supervisor to pick up on, and others (which might feel debilitating for the person concerned) are actually quite invisible to coworkers.
Signs that someone might be struggling with their confidence at work include:
- Not speaking up in meetings
- Difficulty making (or sticking with) decisions
- Apologising unnecessarily
- Being critical or dismissive of previous work achievements
- Procrastination or fear of failure
- Taking a long time over simple tasks or redoing them until they’re perfect
- Overthinking or being especially sensitive to feedback
- Feeling unmotivated or disconnected
- Overworking (and eventually burnout)
- Risk aversion
- Poor communication
All this adds up to a lack of productivity and a whole load of stress for the person who’s experiencing low self esteem – and often others around them, too. If uncertainty and fear define someone’s core experience at work, they’re unlikely to feel able to share innovative ideas with their team, either.
Perfectionism may seem like a good trait to have as an employee (and it’s a classic answer to that interview question about your biggest professional weakness) but when it’s driven by low self esteem, getting things done ‘just so’ comes at the expense of time and energy spent doing other things which might be expected in the role.
Low self esteem has a lot in common with imposter syndrome (or the imposter ‘phenomenon’), which a huge number of us have experienced at work at one point or another. Someone with imposter syndrome – which isn’t a medically recognised condition, incidentally – tends to attribute any success they experience to luck, timing or the mistakes of other people, rather than acknowledging achievements as the result of their own hard work or ability. Like low self esteem, imposter syndrome results in a nagging sense of self doubt and insecurity at work.
But imposter syndrome is likely to be more short lived and situational. You may feel that you don’t have enough experience for this particular job and fear being uncovered as a fraud, even as you work hard to prove yourself. Low self esteem is more pervasive – you might feel that you don’t have the right experience or ability to succeed at any job, and lack the confidence to even step into a role that you don’t feel fully prepared for.
When left unchallenged, low self esteem can lead to low morale, unexplained absences, health problems and job resignations – all of which come at great personal cost, not to mention expense to the business.
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10 ways to build employee confidence at work
It’s important to recognise that low-self esteem can be a bit of a vicious cycle. Once your colleague has the seed of a negative belief, like I’m not clever enough for this job, or I'm not good at public speaking, it’s human nature for them to go about their workday quietly looking for evidence to support this theory. When they find something, they add it to the mental heap and the insecurity looms larger.
Thankfully, a lack of confidence is quite easy to recognise in other people, even if it’s tricky to confront in ourselves. As a manager, there are a few things you can do to stop this cycle from repeating itself and empower your colleague to feel more confident at work.
1. Offer reassurance
You may have to be more vocal and intentional about praise and reassurance when you’re managing someone with low self esteem. There are loads of ways to tell your colleague that the work they’re doing is good enough – giving written praise in public channels is a particularly valuable one, because they get the added bonus of feeling recognised by peers. Similarly, if they’ve contributed an idea that you’re going to present to big boss types, invite them to be in the room so you can give them credit where it’s due.
You could also try to create something for your colleague to reference when they’re experiencing self doubt – you might help them to list their strengths on Post-its, for example, so they can keep them visible on their desk, or collect compliments from colleagues altogether in a single document. Including unconditional praise – praise that focuses on a person’s core traits, rather than what they’ve achieved in the role recently – can also help to boost self esteem and give people a deeper sense of being valued.
2. Remove comparison
If your business makes personal performance metrics visible in your workspace or as part of big company meetings, see whether you could report success on a team level instead. This stops people comparing themselves directly to others and feeling inadequate in front of coworkers. If underperformance is an issue, that’s something you need to deal with in a 1-1 meeting, not on a big screen in front of everyone.
3. Celebrate little wins
A good exercise to build confidence is to ask your report to write down three achievements at the end of every workday. This helps them to reflect on their success – rather than dwelling on the stuff that hasn’t been finished yet. Gradually, this should help them to realise that they are delivering value in their role. You can even use this list as a structure for informal 1-1 meetings or reviews so your colleague can get used to talking openly about their own achievements.
4. Show trust
Micromanagement only gives off the impression that you don’t trust your colleague to get their work done. It’s also just not that fun to do as a team leader. One brilliant way to show trust is to get someone who lacks confidence in general to train other people in a particular skill that they excel at. You can do this in a 1-1 setting if they aren’t comfortable standing up in front of a bigger group.
5. Set clear expectations
This is good practice for everyone you manage, not just those struggling with low self esteem. Being clear about your expectations and what success looks like for each project can stop your employee from feeling they have to over deliver in order to keep up. If your team’s working on projects with long and complicated timelines, it’s a good idea to break down targets into small, achievable goals so your report gets regular hits of satisfaction and recognition, rather than having a big question mark looming at the end of a project.
6. Give feedback thoughtfully
It can be tricky to give honest feedback when someone’s struggling with low self confidence. If you’d like to give constructive criticism in a 1-1 meeting, try to use specific, real-life examples to discuss any concerns you may have noticed, and come armed with a clear action plan about what can be done to improve. Rather than saying “You never speak up in meetings,” try “I noticed that in Wednesday’s meeting you didn’t contribute to the discussion. Is there anything we can do to help you share your ideas with the room?”
7. Model positive language
Negative, minimising or apologetic language is easy to internalise if you use it every day. Encourage your colleague to adjust their language when talking about themselves, their ideas and their achievements.
You could also encourage them to try writing some affirmations – short, positive statements that they can repeat out loud or read on screen if things feel overwhelming. Things like, I am capable, or I deserve success. Your colleague doesn’t have to believe these statements to begin with, but the idea is to work towards believing them through repetition over time.
8. Normalise imperfection
This is something that needs to be introduced to your company culture from the top down. An employee’s fear of failure can be challenged by seeing others taking considered risks and growing from the experience. Urge managers and senior team members to talk about mistakes and missteps publicly – discuss what you tried, why it failed this time, and what you learned in the process. Sharing early work for feedback and saying “I don’t know” more often (while encouraging the senior team to do the same) are other liberating ways to shatter the illusion of perfectionism in your business.This creates a sense of psychological safety so that people feel more comfortable taking risks and speaking up in general.
9. Help them communicate boundaries
Healthy professional boundaries give us a sense of control over the way we approach our work and interact with our colleagues. Without them, we can end up people pleasing at the expense of our own wellbeing – an outcome that’s especially likely for an employee who experiences low self esteem. But communicating our boundaries doesn’t always come naturally. Teach your report how to assert what they need to get their best work done. If you could use a reminder yourself, we’ve got a guide about healthy boundaries to help.
10. Point them towards therapy
If your business has any mental health resources in place (either an Employee Assistance Programme or a mental health support system like Spill), then remember to tell your colleague how to access them. A qualified counsellor can help your employee to challenge their negative core beliefs about themselves and discuss techniques in a non-judgemental space to build up their confidence over time.
The benefits of healthy self esteem at work
We often think about confidence as a ‘soft skill’ in the workplace, but investing in improving your team’s self esteem is objectively good for business. An Indeed survey of 800 workers in the US found that:
- 94% of people said confidence is important to their daily work
- The same proportion said they feel happier when they’re confident at work
- 98% of people said they perform better when they feel confident
- 96% are more likely to stay at a company when they feel confident
Those numbers are huge, even allowing for a sunny American disposition. We’re altogether happier, more productive and less likely to look for another role when we have confidence in our abilities at work.
Managing someone with low self esteem at work can take a bit of extra time and energy. But apart from the personal satisfaction you’ll get from watching someone’s confidence flourish in front of your eyes, the numbers say building self-esteem is worth it from a business perspective, too.
Download our easy step-by-step exercise to build employee confidence
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