This article is the third of four academic pieces on the implications of the different theories of self-esteem for Executive Coaching. Here I look at the links between high and low self-esteem and types of behaviour and motivations. The references for all four articles are contained in the last one.
The literature indicates that potentially there could be a number of types of high self-esteem, not all of which may be beneficial to psychological functioning. Baumeister et al. (1999) suggest that there is a form of high self-esteem associated with negative social behaviour. This is a defensive form of self-esteem based on superficially favourable self-views, underneath which lies truly low self-esteem. People with this type of high self-esteem may react in a hostile or aggressive manner to self-esteem threatening events or situations. Kernis (2003) proposes that there are a number of forms of high self-esteem, each of which may be fragile or secure. An individual possessing the qualities associated with all forms of secure high self-esteem is considered to have optimal self-esteem. Kernis suggests that those with fragile high self-esteem will experience fluctuations in the level of their self-esteem in contextually based immediate feelings of self-worth. Such people are likely to be highly responsive to events that they perceive have relevance to their self-worth, whereas those with optimal self-esteem have positive feelings of self-worth that are not based on external self-validation and as a result are much less threatened by unfavourable events or feedback.
These forms of defensive or fragile high self-esteem may potentially have an influence in the coaching process. For example Peltier (2001) suggests that assessment is an important part of the coaching process and that 360 feedback is a useful tool for this. If working with an individual with defensive or fragile high self-esteem a coach is likely to need to be careful about the way feedback is managed so that it does not appear threatening to self-esteem.
McMahon and Rosen (2009) suggest one approach may be to link assessment information to increased personal success so that it is seen as less threatening. In order to reduce potential threats it may also be important to show unconditional positive regard and create a trusting relationship (Rogers, 2008). If working with a client with extreme levels of high or low self-esteem Maxwell and Bachkirova (2009) propose that a coach consider whether it may be more appropriate to refer the client for therapy.
‘The literature often represents people with low self-esteem as ineffective, anxious and depressed’ (Mruk, 1999, p.89). Tice (1993) however points out that people with low self-esteem are apparently neither pathetic or self-loathing, instead they appear to be ‘cautious, uncertain people who desire success but fear failure – and the fear often outweighs the desire, resulting in an attitude of self-protection’ (p.50). Campbell and Lavallee (1993) suggest that people with low-self esteem have a lack of self-concept clarity and that their self-views are neutral (neither strongly positive nor negative) and ‘characterised by high levels of uncertainty, instability and inconsistency’ (p.4). Baumeister et al. (1989) note that people classified as low in self-esteem often score above the conceptual midpoint of test scales and this means that they tend to endorse neutral or intermediate answers to questions of self-worth. Their scores are therefore not low in the absolute sense, but only relative to those that endorse highly favourable statements about self-worth.
Contingencies of Self-Esteem
Crocker (2002) proposes that people are motivated to pursue self-esteem in internal or external domains where they believe they must succeed or achieve to be worthwhile. Examples of such domains of contingent self-worth include academic success, physical attractiveness, being admired and being a moral person. People apparently invest significant energy in the pursuit of contingencies of self-worth and they shape much of their behaviour. Self-esteem tends to be especially vulnerable in areas of contingent self-worth. Crocker and Knight (2005) appear to suggest that everybody has some contingencies of self-worth; however it is worth noting that Kernis (2003) proposes that people with optimal self-esteem are unlikely to pursue contingencies of self-worth. Although Heatherton and Wyland (2003) take the view that very few such people exist.
The pursuit of contingencies of self-worth is potentially costly to people in terms of such things as learning and autonomy (Crocker and Knight, 2005). Crocker (2002) proposes that instead of pursuing contingencies of self-worth people should shift their goals from those that are self-focused goals of maintaining and protecting self-esteem to noble goals that are related to ‘giving and creating not getting and having’ (p. 611).
It would appear that different levels of self-esteem are associated with different types of interpersonal motivations in a public setting (Baumeister et al. 1989). Those with high self-esteem may be seen as having an ambitious and self-aggrandising style of self-presentation. This self-enhancing orientation is characterised by such things as a willingness to take risks, a focus on strong personal qualities and the use of strategic ploys such as self-handicapping. This approach serves to enable those with high self-esteem to look good, enhance their reputation and be admired. Those with low self-esteem may present themselves in a cautious and prudent self-protective manner associated with an aversion to risk, a focus on avoiding highly negative personal qualities, avoidance of many strategic ploys and an unwillingness to draw attention to themselves. This approach enables people with low self-esteem to protect themselves from failure, rejection or embarrassment.
The motivations and behaviours associated with self-protection and self-enhancement may have an influence on the coaching process. For example it may be inappropriate to consider developmental activity that would be perceived by a client with low self-esteem as high risk. Strauss (2005) identifies that those perceived with high self-esteem by peers and managers, receive better 360 performance ratings, and the reason for this is likely to be linked to a self-enhancing approach to impression management. This may be relevant to note in the assessment phase of coaching. It may also mean that in working with someone with low self-esteem a coach could, as Strauss suggests, consider building impression management skills as one way to improving perceptions of performance.
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