Is Self-Worth a Cure for Office Drama?

Workplace conflict is an undeniably frequent occurrence, but where it crosses with self-esteem may be a surprise.

Conflicts are frequent in a diverse, global business environment, and they affect the bottom line. But learning how to deal with work arguments could be a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.”

Self-worth and self-esteem influence trust and collaboration at work. The concept centers on individual employees, but there are steps learning leaders can take to create a trusting, collaborative work environment.

Ralph Kilmann, who co-authored the Thomas-Kilmann instrument, which assesses conflict-handling behavior, spoke with Chief Learning Officer about the relationship between conflict and self-worth. He offered five self-concepts learning leaders can offer to help enable their employees make valuable contributions.

What are the five concepts of self?

Kilmann: These five fundamental concepts ultimately affect all your decisions, actions, whether you can trust other people, whether you can get engaged on the job and your capacity for learning, creating and growing.

  1. Self-identity. That’s who I am.
  2. Self-competency. How effective I am at being who I am. Am I authentic, or do I wear a mask and go through the life in the organization pretending to be someone I’m not?
  3. Self-value. Have I contributed what others need or want? Is my organization benefiting from my decisions and action?
  4. Self-worth. Am I a good or bad person? Do I deserve to be happy? Those questions fundamentally answer whether you can trust other people, work with other people, are free to create and contribute and get engaged on the job.
  5. Self-responsibility. Who controls what I do, who I am, whether I’m happy or sad?

Can self-worth be learned?

Kilmann: If people are unconscious, these decisions have been made by family of origin, cultural expectation, conditioning and corporate culture. People have not been free to examine themselves so they can really figure out how to engage in the workplace and other aspects of their life.

This is where training programs come in, where we actually allow people and create settings to discuss these topics and ask questions. As people discover more about themselves, they get closer to their colleagues, the trust level goes up, and they become freer to contribute all their skills and talent.

But if these questions remain determined by external forces — whether it’s the family of origin, the corporate culture or broader society — you’re not making use of the mind, brain and spirit capabilities of your human resources. You’re using basically what people are on autopilot. You’re not engaging them in the workplace.

How does having employees with high self-worth affect workplace conflict?

Kilmann: Conflicts can be managed more effectively. If employees can develop a higher level of self-esteem, genuine but not over-exaggerated, then they are freer to be who they are, look at the conflicts and manage them.

One of the key attributes of managing conflict effectively is trust. You can’t have any collaborative solution if people don’t trust one another, don’t share what they really need and want, don’t get everything out on the table and don’t communicate effectively without getting people defensive. Those qualities come from a good self-concept.

How can a leader influence his or her employees’ self-worth?

Kilmann: You can’t make someone else happy. You can’t make someone else get high self-esteem. They have to give it to themselves. So step one is to create opportunities: training and learning sessions, workshops, discussion. Then people can define these five self-concepts by themselves, can recognize that they probably have automatically assumed their family of origin, the expectations of society, the culture they grew up with, the experiences they had, and they’re living out someone else’s expectations of who they are, their value, their worth and so forth.

How important is self-worth as a leadership quality?

Kilmann: Leadership sets the tone, and if the senior executive promotes fear, mistrust, ego-politics, office politics and competition in a way that distracts from getting the work done, that is heavily based on feelings of low self-worth, low self-esteem, not taking responsibility, and that spreads throughout the organization. At a lower level, it’s accentuated in terms of fear, mistrust, holding back, and doing the minimum to get by.

When does high self-worth become cockiness or self-importance?

Kilmann: Being cocky is a compensation for low self-esteem. The person who has moderate or high self-esteem, self-value, self-worth, is very confident in his own shoes. He doesn’t have to propel himself on all conversations. He doesn’t have to win the argument in every case. He is at peace with himself.