In the second of his series on self-worth, John Niland looks at how law firm partners and managers can develop self-worth in others, and the benefits this can bring to your business

John Niland

In my last article, in the October 2019 edition of Managing for Success, I discussed how to develop a personal sense of self-worth and why this is important in the workplace. As outlined in that article, most leaders have been educated and shaped in a culture of self-esteem, not self-worth. This brings some practical consequences for how they manage people, as well as a few pitfalls, too.

Shifting from self-esteem-based leadership to self-worth-based leadership opens up a whole new perspective. When a manager or partner operates from self-worth – including a desire to develop self-worth in others – this brings a new set of behaviours that make them very engaging as a leader or manager. This change also has a positive impact on everything from team performance to retention.

Reminder: self-esteem versus self-worth

Before going further, let’s briefly revisit the difference between self-worth and self-esteem. Self-esteem is a person’s reputation with themselves: how they feel they are doing at life. For that reason, it fluctuates. On a day when you are making progress at work, happy in relationships and generally satisfied with life, you feel good. A few days later, however, perhaps you have an unexpected setback, or feel too lazy to go the gym, or get some negative feedback from a client or boss. On these days, you may suffer a drop in self-esteem.

Giving constant praise and star ratings often just reinforces the addiction to validation, as many a parent can tell you

Self-worth is an unconditional sense of loyal friendship to yourself. As such, it does not come from behaviour or performance. You can have self-worth even when you skip the gym, get negative feedback or make a mistake. Indeed, those are the days when self-worth is really important.

For several decades now, self-esteem has been a dominant philosophy in the education and upbringing of young people. This is particularly true in the US, where even self-deprecating humour is largely frowned upon. This means that the unwritten question engraved in the minds of young people entering your law practice is “How am I doing?”. Whether voiced or not, this is the question that professionals are asking every day.

Common misunderstandings

This prompts many leaders to do what many teachers increasingly do: dish out positive appraisals and ratings all the time, in the hope of motivating people. From a self-esteem point of view, this is perhaps understandable: self-esteem engenders a craving for positive assessments. However, giving constant praise and star ratings often just reinforces the addiction to validation, as many a parent can tell you.

Self-worth is about getting off the diet of constant validation. Instead of seeking to satisfy that craving for validation, it’s about tapping into a deeper source of motivation. When professionals are deeply motivated by self-worth, they become much more effective in their roles. Put simply, their focus is on the job, rather than on themselves.

A second misunderstanding stems from the belief that if people abandon self-esteem, they will just stop trying for excellence and high performance. This worries not just managers, but also parents and teachers. For this reason, they seek to ‘install’ the self-esteem driver as an internal regulator that will (hopefully) still drive performance on those days that they are not actively ‘supervising’.

But what happens in practice? In 20 years of coaching work, I’ve repeatedly seen that any gains that might be wrought via the self-esteem imperative are more than offset by the associated losses: it makes us insecure, self-preoccupied and narcissistic. It gives us that constant nagging feeling of never being good enough. When people switch to self-worth, it’s like transplanting their roots into richer and deeper soil. Yes, growth may pause for a couple of weeks while a professional adjusts, but soon they will prosper and bloom, released from the constraint of constant self-assessment.

Benefits of a self-worth culture

Professionals of every age are now calling for work that is more meaningful. This is not just a characteristic of millennials: few people are now willing to tolerate year after year of meaningless transactional days. While each of us may define what is meaningful in different ways, it seems that nearly everybody wants a sense of purpose.

As leaders, we therefore need to think deeply about meaning and purpose. Gone are the days when we could just define a nice mission statement and put it on the wall. Today’s professionals want to play their part in defining what is meaningful for them. As someone recently put it, “meaning is a significant part of the business case”.

So how can self-worth contribute to a high-performing culture which attracts, values and retains its people?

  • Meetings get shorter
    People speak only when they really have something to say, rather than just trying to draw attention to themselves and be noticed.
  • Difficult messages get delivered sooner, without drama or undue procrastination
    When people are less fearful of negative feedback, they can be more courageous in communication with both clients and colleagues.
  • Emails get shorter and more to-the-point
    A common reason for long rambling emails is that people are trying to prove they are right.
  • Micro-control and micro-management decrease
    This not only saves time and energy, but also brings fresh lightness to each working day.
  • Feedback conversations become less onerous, from both sides
    Even when the feedback is ‘negative’, it’s about the work, not the person. And when it’s your turn to receive difficult feedback, you will experience less self-reproach. Essential feedback can take place, as there is the psychological safety to give and receive it. When this safety is absent, professionals tend to minimise risk by avoiding negative conversations. This means issues get bottled up and are not dealt with. With self-worth, it’s easier to have these awkward conversations, so there is less pent-up frustration.
  • There is greater team loyalty and improved retention
    It’s hard to have team loyalty where each individual is hungry for validation, snatching every morsel of success off the table as their achievement. People are more likely to stay with teams and leaders where team loyalty exists. Even when conditions are not ideal, or the firm is going through a rough patch, there is loyalty to common objectives.
  • Professionals are more creative
    The enemies of creativity and innovation are fear, criticism, politics and protectionism. In an environment where there is safety, people feel empowered to try fresh approaches, which can often provide a tangible boost to both business development and client management.

How to build self-worth in others

  • Be genuinely interested in what your team are doing and experiencing
    Many managers put energy into trying to be interesting. Those who are genuinely interested are much more highly regarded as leaders.
  • Demonstrate trust
    Give people space to solve their own problems and make their own decisions. Micro-management (and micro-control) undermines self-worth: it tells people they are not trusted.
  • Let people know they are well regarded, even when they ‘fail’
    In this way, you can even give people a lot of tough feedback: it shows you believe in them. This helps you protect a strong relationship, regardless of performance, but also helps you to improve performance because it makes most people at every level keen for feedback: it’s a sign of trust.
  • Role-model the ability to take stock honestly
    If you can own up to your own mistakes without drama or self-reproach, it shows others that they can do the same.
  • Focus on the value of the output
    When doing reviews, share what specifically was valuable (and how it was impactful), rather than how valuable it was (that is, ratings). For example, rather than saying “your presentation was brilliant”, can you instead talk about who was influenced by the presentation, why, and what benefit that will bring? In this way, you focus on the value of the work, rather than the rating of the work, and encourages professionals to be more value-focused in their thinking.
  • Watch your language
    Systematically remove adjectives / judgements from everyday language and replace them with observations about value or impact. For example, replace “that’s good”, with “that’s a fresh approach”, or even “I like it”. When professionals are free of judgements, they become more courageous and creative.
  • Identify examples of “have – do – be logic” and help people to reverse it
    For example, you will hear many people say things like “When I have the time, I will do the networking and be more successful”. With self-worth, they learn to reverse that logic to something like “By seeing myself as already successful, I can do the networking and still have more energy”.
  • Ask why
    When people are constantly seeking to prove themselves, at an appropriate moment in a trusted conversation, ask them why they need to do so? If they felt okay, what might they do instead? Share the distinction between self-esteem and self-worth. Most people find it quite novel and refreshing.

Pitfalls to avoid

  • Don’t give vague praise and compliments – like “You’re doing a great job”
    Not only does this reinforce the addiction to self-validation (for all the reasons discussed above), but all too often, such statements also often serve to reinforce the power of the praise-giver. For a host of reasons, professionals feel uncomfortable with flattery: in some organisations, it can be a cause of mistrust.
  • Avoid subjective ratings or assessments – like “Could communicate better”
    Many of today’s performance appraisals are composed of such statements, often with no supporting evidence. These opinions are frequently subjective, sweeping generic statements that are not always related to the role being performed. Small wonder many staff dread appraisals.
  • Don’t be indifferent
    Many managers think they don’t need to bother about the details of their reports’ jobs. However, the recurring complaint of professionals is “my manager is not interested in my job: only in the deadlines / the numbers”. More than any other factor, this serves to undermine a professional’s sense of value and pride in their work. All too often, professionals join because of the firm… but leave because of the manager.