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The Dangers of Contingent Self-Esteem

This week, our hosts navigate through an extensive amount of research literature to come to some conclusions on self-esteem and how to approach it. When we rely on external factors to determine our self-esteem, we open ourselves up to dangerous perspectives. This kind of contingent self-esteem can lead to chronic insecurity in leaders, which gets in the way of their ability to lead effectively and can have detrimental effects on individuals and organizations. In the episode, Tim and Junior suggest three ways to develop a healthier sense of self-worth and tell us which definition of self-esteem they think works best.

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Episode Show Notes

This week, our hosts navigate through an extensive amount of research literature to come to some conclusions on self-esteem and how to approach it. When we rely on external factors to determine our self-esteem, we open ourselves up to dangerous perspectives. This kind of contingent self-esteem can lead to chronic insecurity in leaders, which gets in the way of their ability to lead effectively and can have detrimental effects on individuals and organizations. In the episode, Tim and Junior suggest three ways to develop a healthier sense of self-worth and tell us which definition of self-esteem they think works best.

  • Self-esteem is a complex concept that encompasses self-competence and self-liking.
  • Contingent self-esteem is dependent on external factors and can be detrimental to well-being.
  • The measurement of self-esteem can be assessed using scales such as the Rosenberg self-esteem scale.
  • Contingent self-esteem can impact decision-making, relationships, and emotional health.
  • The influence of social media has led to the emergence of image-based contingent self-esteem.
  • Contingent self-esteem is linked to vulnerability to negative emotions such as depression and anxiety. Beware the dangers of contingent self-esteem and the negative impact it can have on personal well-being and leadership effectiveness.
  • Personal experiences can shape one's self-esteem, and it is important to recognize and challenge negative influences.
  • Contingent self-esteem can lead to chronic insecurity in leaders, hindering their ability to lead effectively.
  • Pathological self-esteem, characterized by narcissism and hubris, can have detrimental effects on individuals and organizations.
  • Develop a healthier sense of self-worth by finding your intrinsic motivation, celebrating effort rather than outcomes, and promoting self-compassion.

(00:00) Introduction and Overview
(00:50) The Complexity of Self-Esteem
(06:04) Measurement of Self-Esteem
(09:19) The Impact of Self-Esteem on Decision-Making and Well-Being
(12:07) Introduction to Contingent Self-Esteem
(16:37) The Destructive Nature of Contingent Self-Esteem
(21:23) The Influence of Social Media on Contingent Self-Esteem
(22:26) Assessment of Contingent Self-Esteem
(25:13) The Link Between Contingent Self-Esteem and Negative Emotions
(25:58) Beware the dangers of contingent self-esteem
(33:38) Contingent self-esteem and its negative effects on leadership
(43:39)Tactics for developing a healthier sense of self-worth
(47:35) Find your why
(49:00) Celebrate effort, not outcomes
(50:53) Promote a healthy dose of self-compassion

Episode Transcript


0:00:03.5 Jillian: Welcome back, Culture by Design listeners. It's Jillian, one of the producers of the podcast. This week, our hosts navigate through an extensive amount of research literature to come to some conclusions about self-esteem and how to approach it. When we rely on external factors to determine our self-esteem, we open ourselves up to dangerous perspectives. Contingent self-esteem can lead to chronic insecurity in leaders, which gets in the way of their ability to lead effectively and can have detrimental effects on individuals and organizations. In the episode, Tim and Junior suggests three ways to develop a healthier sense of self-worth, and tell us which definition of self-esteem they think works best. As always, transcripts, show notes and important links mentioned in the episode can be found at Thanks for listening and enjoy today's episode on the dangers of contingent self-esteem.


0:00:56.1 Junior: Welcome back everyone to Culture By Design. I'm Junior here with my co-host, Dr. Tim Clark, and today we'll be discussing contingent self-esteem. Tim, how are you doing?

0:01:06.5 Tim Clark: I'm doing well. I think Junior, in this conversation, we're actually going to open a conversation, and I don't think we're gonna close it.

0:01:14.7 Junior: I agree.

0:01:14.8 Tim Clark: But we're going to get into it. And then for you listeners, I think you're gonna have a lot to think about, and so...

0:01:21.3 Junior: There's gonna be a lot of homework.

0:01:23.4 Tim Clark: Yes. And hopefully you can carry on the conversation with your peers and your friends and the people that you love and respect. But we're gonna open it up.

0:01:31.8 Junior: We are gonna open it up. And as we started exploration into the research on my end, it opened almost more doors than it closed.


0:01:40.9 Junior: It opened my eyes to a whole bunch of things that I didn't understand as well. And so I feel like I've made a few more steps, and maybe I crossed the peak of Mount stupid in the Dunning-Kruger effect, and now I'm on the other side.

0:01:55.1 Tim Clark: That's right. [laughter]

0:01:56.0 Junior: I realize how much I don't know. And my aperture has widened. And now I see just how fascinating this topic really, really is once you dive in.

0:02:05.5 Tim Clark: Well, as I said Junior at the outset, we're gonna get dangerous in the conversation, but we're not going to plumb the complete depths of this topic. But it is very, very important.

0:02:14.9 Junior: It's certainly going to be more than an elementary look at self-esteem. And the research literature is fascinating, and I'm very confident that if you stick around, you'll learn something useful. Here's one of the interesting questions we're going to discuss today, is more self-esteem good? And the answer is that it's not that simple. In order to answer that question, we have to peel back a few layers. We have to dive deeper. So, our hope is that by the end of the episode, you'll have a more progressed understanding of the research literature behind self-esteem and a more nuanced perspective as to how to develop it in yourself, how to help other people along. And at the very end, we're going to leave you with three very practical things that you can do starting today.

0:02:57.9 Tim Clark: That's fair.

0:03:00.1 Junior: So to begin, self-esteem may not be exactly what you think it is. So, what is self-esteem? It's how we value and perceive ourselves. That may be a definition that rolls off your tongue pretty quickly if someone asked you. That is the essence, I suppose. But Tim, is this definition sufficient?

0:03:19.2 Tim Clark: No, it's not. And hopefully we can explain why it's not. It's a good start. And it does get to the essence of the concept, how we value and perceive and esteem and regard ourselves. But we gotta break it down.

0:03:37.7 Junior: Yeah. It's not differentiated enough. There's not a lot that we can do with that. So definitionally, one of the things that I think is really important to do with almost any concept is understand it at a level at which you can then take practical action. And to me, how we value and perceive ourselves, the only action you could take based on that definition is value yourself better or perceive yourself better. That's not nuanced enough to be useful. So, let's go down really the first fork in the road, which is that self-esteem breaks down into two components and realize we haven't gotten into contingent self-esteem yet. We're still talking at the highest level about normal self-esteem. There's self competence, which is understood as one's instrumental value, and that's the key word here, instrumental. Schmidt and Alec in 2005, defined self competence as feeling you are confident, capable, and efficacious. In other words, I'm useful, I can do things. That's our self competence or instrumental value. And then we have self liking. Self liking is defined as one's sense of intrinsic self value. They define self liking as feeling you are good and socially relevant. So, we have these two components right out the gate of self-esteem that many people don't know or understand well.

0:05:01.1 Tim Clark: Junior, what strikes me about these two components is that intrinsic self-esteem or self value, as they call it, is it can be unconditional if you give that to yourself. And instrumental self-esteem or self competence or self-efficacy, there's another good word for that is conditional based on your capacity as a person. So, there's a distinction there right away, and I get each one, but it's important that a person be able to develop in my view, intrinsic self-esteem before it's almost a sequence. And I don't know that you certainly can't do this in a clean way, but you need to have component of intrinsic self-esteem before instrumental self-esteem, because you've got to somehow develop an unconditional sense of your own value and worth. So, we're going to talk more about this, but the distinction between these two components, I think, thrust us into the tension that surrounds the study and the discussion of self-esteem. So, this first distinction is in my view, conditional versus unconditional. But it's all about you. We haven't talked about your relationship with other people yet.

0:06:16.3 Junior: Or outcomes.

0:06:17.5 Tim Clark: Or outcomes. Yeah.

0:06:19.9 Junior: Yeah. [laughter] Yeah. It only gets more complicated from here. Here's an interesting way to look at self-esteem. There's a scale, of I think it's 10 items or something like that, the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. It's been around for a while. And I'd like to go through those items because when you see these items, it'll give you a sense of how we measure self-esteem generally, and a sense of how you as a listener might currently perceive your own self-esteem. So the scale is four points, strongly disagree, disagree, agree, strongly disagree. I'm gonna just roll through these items and think to yourself, how would I respond to each one of these items? Strongly disagree, disagree, agree, strongly agree. On the whole, I'm satisfied with myself. At times, I think I'm no good at all. I feel that I have a number of good qualities. I'm able to do things as well as most other people. I feel I do not have much to be proud of. I certainly feel useless at times. I feel that I'm a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others. I wish I could have more respect for myself. All in all, I'm inclined to feel that I'm a failure. And the last one, I take a positive attitude toward myself. These are interesting items. [laughter]

0:07:39.1 Tim Clark: They are.

0:07:40.1 Junior: And this is a reliable scale. So, listing the items is important because it gives you a more scientific look into how these things are measured. So, depending on how you rate yourself across those items, and you'll notice some of those are reverse chord that will tell you how much self-esteem you have based on the scale.

0:08:04.4 Tim Clark: Yeah. Well, junior, we take a fascination with survey instruments, don't we? Because we're...

0:08:09.8 Junior: We do.

0:08:09.9 Tim Clark: We're in that business. So we parse these things, we deconstruct them, we look at them very carefully. Here's what I see. So, in the Rosenberg scale, we are combining items that relate to instrumental self-esteem and intrinsic self-esteem. For example one item says, I am, another item says I do. Do you see how those are now combined?

0:08:41.6 Junior: Yeah.

0:08:43.1 Tim Clark: So, the instrumental is in there with the intrinsic. So in one sense, that's good because we're combining both components, but in another it's problematic, I guess, because we're mixing them and we're not pulling them apart from each other. Whether we should do that or not, I'm not exactly sure. I think we have to acknowledge that both components are important in a person's self-esteem. I just want to give you a simple example I thought of. So, say you wake up in the morning, it's a new day, and you slum around all day in your pajamas. You don't take a shower, you binge on Netflix, and you eat cold pizza all day until the night comes and it's time to go to bed. [laughter] You probably don't feel like going to bed, but how do you feel about yourself?

0:09:32.6 Junior: Not good.

0:09:35.1 Tim Clark: For that day I don't know. Junior, what do you think? How do you feel about yourself?

0:09:39.4 Junior: Well, how would I personally feel about myself? I would not feel very good and yeah, yeah. There's a little bit of insight into how I perceive my own self and my instrumental value. How about that?

0:09:50.1 Tim Clark: That's right. That's right.

0:09:52.6 Junior: Yeah. Yeah. Personally, my self esteem is, I think pretty tied to my instrumental value. Did I do anything? Did I create value? Did I not?

0:10:04.2 Tim Clark: Yeah. So for that day, at least your sense of instrumental self-esteem is probably in the toilet. You are not useful, you did not contribute. You have offended your sense of worth tied to what you trade your time for. You're not going to look in the mirror and say, I was productive today. I feel good about myself. Now, if you're sick or hurt or recovering from something, okay, that's a different story. But generally speaking, what you do correlates with how you think of yourself. So that is instrumental, that's the instrumental component. And I agree with you, Junior. That's important. That's a vital part of overall self-esteem, and it has to be included. I agree.

0:10:51.0 Junior: So, why is LeaderFactor talking about self-esteem? What is important about self-esteem as it relates to leaders? It impacts everything. It impacts your decision making process, your relationship, your emotional health, your overall wellbeing in leadership specifically and management. What does it have to do with your life? Again, everything: Decision making, resilience, openness to feedback, delegation, humility. It affects a whole host of things. And because you experience life every day as yourself, the way you regard yourself, both intrinsically and instrumentally will affect literally every decision you ever make.

0:11:32.7 Tim Clark: That's right.

0:11:34.1 Junior: What about happiness?

0:11:35.8 Tim Clark: And happiness...

0:11:36.5 Junior: Does that have anything to do with this?

0:11:38.7 Tim Clark: Yeah. I think at the end of the day, it has a whole lot to do with your happiness.

0:11:41.8 Junior: Something.

0:11:42.0 Tim Clark: Yeah. Really do.

0:11:44.8 Junior: So, now that we understand self-esteem a little bit better, let's learn a new term. And this is where we're gonna spend most of our time today. What is contingent self-esteem? Tim, can you explain this one?

0:11:54.8 Tim Clark: I'll try. Contingent self-esteem, we can even use an acronym. CSE, contingent self-esteem, is self-esteem that's contingent or dependent upon the social approval of others. Now, this isn't all bad, so I want to just qualify this from the beginning. It's not all bad, because we learn how to interact with each other. We learn values, we learn norms through the socialization process, many of which are good, and allow us to form healthy, functioning relationships, families, societies. So, the process of socialization is important and vital in many ways. But what I want to talk about is when it becomes counterproductive. It starts to go south when we become preoccupied with fulfilling others' expectations, we then give people power to manipulate or control us. This is what we need to think deeply about. The point is that when a person becomes dependent on the approval of others, and they have not developed their own ability to value themselves and a moral capacity to judge situations, then it all starts to work against them. This contingent self-esteem becomes destructive. So, as a very simple example for all of our listeners, Junior, think about some stupid thing that you've done in life. Maybe when you were younger, I don't know...

0:13:37.4 Junior: Or today.

0:13:38.9 Tim Clark: As a result, or today [laughter] that was a result of peer pressure or social pressure. You probably look back on it and regret it and say to yourself, why did I do that? That was stupid. I caved to the pressure of my peers. We have all done that, every single one of us. So, that's an example to help us understand unhealthy, counterproductive, destructive forms of contingent self-esteem. Now, I want to take it a little further and I'm going to bring in... I want to quote a philosophy professor, Terry Warner here, who takes it a step further and it gets interesting and it gets concerning.

0:14:28.0 Tim Clark: So, I'm gonna quote him a little bit in an academic paper that he wrote about socialization and self-deception. So, he talks about the socialization process, beginning with when we're children. And we all went through that. And he says that this process harms the child only when people insidiously demand that the child fulfill expectations as a condition of their acceptance and approval of that child. So, think about this. And we're gonna go a little deeper here. When this happens, and it happens a lot. The child is from their earliest years involved not only in behaving according to norms and standards, which they have learned from others, but also in using this behavior to win their approval. The community which accepts the child only conditionally thus breeds into the child insecurity. Okay. Now, here comes a train of negative consequences, Junior, breeds into the child insecurity about who they are and whether they are justified in being who they are.

0:15:54.1 Tim Clark: Approval is held out as relief from insecurity. Ooh, let me say that again. Approval is held out as relief from this insecurity by this demonic means pervasive in our society the child is subtly controlled. Wow. Okay. So, that's heavy. That's heavy. But we're on a continuum. We're talking about socialization. This is where it all begins. There's a good side of socialization, a necessary side so that we can create social collectives that are functioning, that are healthy, that build and lift and encourage and guide children, and then adolescents and then adults. We get it. But when contingent self-esteem is held out as let me just go back to it, relief from insecurity that the social collective has already created, we have a problem. That's where contingent self-esteem becomes dangerous and destructive.

0:17:06.6 Junior: It makes me think about the four stages of psychological safety, stage one, inclusion-safety. And if the default mode is insecurity, and you can only pass through the threshold of inclusion by meeting expectations. It means that we don't have the threshold level of respect in the environment that we are due simply because of our humanity. So, one of the things we argue for in the realm of psychological safety is that you owe every other human being respect because they're human, not because they met some expectation. And so the default setting should be inclusion based on shared humanity, not based on performance or likability or whatever expectation it is that we throw out into the world. So, the parallels between this relation based contingent self-esteem and psychological safety are pretty interesting. That may seem a little esoteric, but I think that that, that's worth calling out.

0:18:12.9 Tim Clark: I think you're dead on. Stage one inclusion-safety is about giving people unconditional non-contingent inclusion. And they don't need to meet your expectations or fulfill your expectations before you give it to them as relief from insecurity. I think you're dead on.

0:18:34.0 Junior: Yeah. That's cool. I hadn't considered that, but you always learn something as you're talking in these types of conversations, so I appreciate that. So contingent self-esteem is self-esteem that's dependent on external factors or meeting certain conditions. As you said, the way you value and perceive yourself is dependent on external things. So throughout the episode, we may refer to this as CSE, and there are two domains of CSE or contingent self-esteem. There's the relationship based, which Tim talked about, and there's also performance based, which is based on outcomes, success in a particular domain, academics, sports, work. Now, you could even make the argument that performance based lives underneath relationship based, because why would we care about the outcome if there were no other people there to congratulate us?

0:19:29.7 Tim Clark: That's right.

0:19:29.8 Junior: And so the relationship between those two, I don't know that it's as cut and dry as the research may lay it out, but it's pretty interesting. And then Tim, you called out this idea of image-based inside relationships. What do you think about that?

0:19:42.3 Tim Clark: Yeah. I think there's a mutation that's happening, Junior, a distortion that's happening in the age of social media. So, what you said makes perfect sense, performance based and relationship based. And that relationship based is maybe nested in performance based, because if you win a championship and no one's there, yeah, who cares?

0:20:04.3 Junior: Who cares? Yeah.

0:20:06.2 Tim Clark: But I think image based is a little different than relationship based, because in this age of social media, many people are seeking self-esteem through transactions based on their image, not real relationships. They're proxies, they're trying to be proxies, they're trying to be replacements, but they're not. So, it all becomes transactional. Do to number of likes you get on a post constitute a relationship or relationships? No. They're simply signs. And I might add empty and meaningless signs of social approval, but people are using those as proxies for social approval as if there were real relationships, but they're not. So, I think we have a bit of a mutation here in our age of social media very concerning.

0:21:05.0 Junior: Very concerning. I appreciate you calling that out. And that's worth another few episodes, but you can see some of the outcomes coming out of that, and they're not good. So, there are CSE scales, just like there are self-esteem scales that we went through earlier, and these assess how much someone relies on external factors for self validation. And most of these scales do cover the two domains, competence based or performance based contingent self-esteem and relation based. And one of these scales that I found particularly interesting, it's called the 'Contingencies of Self-Worth Scale from National Institutes of Health. This is some homework for you, if you found this fascinating at all and absolutely worth looking into if you want to take a deeper look. So, I'm gonna read just four of these items and you can see how they compare to what we read previously. When I think I look attractive, I feel good about myself. I can't respect myself if others don't respect me, I don't care if other people have a negative opinion about me, doing better than others gives me a sense of self-respect. Aren't those interesting items?

0:22:19.5 Tim Clark: Well, they're interesting, Junior, because they're not all bad and they're not all wrong. But there's a dangerous component in there. And that's what we're talking about. For example, I can't respect myself if others don't respect me. Well, to some extent there needs to be an element of truth there. Right?

0:22:47.2 Junior: Yeah. That's one of the most fascinating things about this topic, and something that I'm really grappling with is there's this element of socialization that we can't get away from. We are socialized through the expectations and social norms of the environment that we're in. That's not a bad thing, but there's nuance. There's a point at which it becomes pathological and the expectations supersede the owed inclusion that we bring to the table that's often not there. So, I think that that's where this starts to go south. So, when we talk about the complication related to contingent self-esteem, it's that it's dangerous. So, we won't come out and say, contingent self-esteem is bad. No. I think that that's ignorant to a lot of what exists regarding socialization, healthy socialization, and societal expectation. If it was just anarchy, there were no expectations, social norms, you can imagine what society we would have.

0:23:49.7 Junior: It would devolve into madness really quickly. There has to be some semblance of order. And that order is created through the expectations we have of each other. We expect each other to behave a certain way. But then there's this dangerous element. So there's a link, and here's some more research for you, between high contingent self-esteem and vulnerability to negative emotion like depression and anxiety. So why? Because we're basing our self-esteem on external factors. External factors are unpredictable. So, if external factors are volatile and unpredictable, and your self-esteem is based on external factors, your self-esteem must also be volatile and unpredictable. And what do you get when your emotions are volatile and unpredictable? That's a recipe for negative emotion. And underneath negative emotion, we have depression and anxiety. Those are words that you hear often, and I think that they're relevant to this conversation, and that's why this contingent self-esteem can be so dangerous. So, pinpointing exactly how contingent the self-esteem is is a really interesting question.

0:25:06.6 Tim Clark: It is. And I think maybe the way to frame it, Junior, is to beware the dangers of contingent self-esteem. There are elements of self-esteem that are necessary, that are good, that perpetuate healthy, functioning, constructive social collectives, societies, families. There's no doubt. It's very, very important. The socialization process is very important to perpetuate norms and values that matter, and that we need to have. But again, the dangerous side is when you're giving others control over your self-esteem in negative ways, right? You're giving them the controls and then accepting their opinions and verdicts about you when it's manipulative or self-serving or controlling. So, one of the most important things I think, that we can learn in this life is, so who do you listen to and who do you ignore? Whose vote counts and who doesn't get a vote? Because we don't give them a vote, right?

0:26:11.0 Tim Clark: Having said that, I think we realize that people, they don't almost never surrender their self-esteem knowingly or willingly. They don't consciously say, "I'm giving you my self-esteem." They fall into it over time. They often get sucked into it during their adolescent years. I want to give you a personal story here. When I was 18, I went to university and I went on a football scholarship to play division one football. And during my freshman year, I was seriously injured in a game, and I had to have major surgery. And here's what happened to me. I went to the hospital, I had the major surgery. They put a big old cast on my leg. They gave me crutches. I came back, and I'll never forget, reentering, right? Reentry now into this social collective, which is the football society, the football community.

0:27:17.1 Tim Clark: It is a social organism. So, we go back in and I'm on crutches, and I've got this big cast, and I go to my first meeting with my position coach, and the players that I played with that played my position. And from that very moment, as soon as I got into the room, Junior, I could tell that things had changed. It was completely different. What was different was I was invisible now. My coach treated me as if I were invisible for the rest of the season. And I got mixed. I'd say mixed responses from my teammates. Some of them treated me that way too. Others did not change in the way that they interacted with me. They gave me the same social approval, the same validation as a human being. But my coach, man, I was like a non-entity after that. I was socially rejected.

0:28:28.1 Tim Clark: That experience at 18 years old was a major wake up call, a defining formative experience that changed my life because I looked around and I said, "Oh, so this is the way it is. Okay. I get it." So, I'm no longer able to contribute as a player. I'm on crutches. I'm done for the year, for the season, and this is what I get. Okay? I see how this works. Wow. Okay. What if I allowed my coach and others to have their hands on the dials, hands on the controls, and that I would bow to their opinions, their expectations, and their verdicts of me. Where am I? Then I'm a mess, right? I'm a mess. I am broken. And I am at their mercy. So, this was a lesson, this was instructive, helped me to understand that I cannot put my self-esteem in their hands because they... Look what they'll do. So there's the dangerous side of contingent self-esteem, Junior.

0:29:55.1 Junior: Well, thank you for sharing that. I'm sure that was a painful experience, both literally and emotionally. I mean, physically, you're going through a whole bunch of pain, and then emotionally, you're met with even more pain. Do you think that that experience affected the way that you treated other people?

0:30:15.4 Tim Clark: I do.

0:30:19.3 Junior: How?

0:30:20.6 Tim Clark: Well, because I realized that it shouldn't matter. And I would say that to myself, this shouldn't matter. I'm still the same person. Am I not entitled to the same acceptance, approval, validation? Well, apparently not with you, but inside myself. I said, but I'm still the same person. This doesn't make sense. I think it was my sense of intrinsic self-esteem that said, this is a betrayal of sorts. What is going on? This shouldn't be, this can't be right. It's a moral infraction to treat people that way. It's not okay.

0:31:01.6 Junior: Well, and I imagine that it affected the way that you treated the next guy who came in on crutches.

0:31:07.3 Tim Clark: Yeah. Oh yeah.

0:31:08.0 Junior: Right?

0:31:09.4 Tim Clark: Yeah, yeah.

0:31:10.8 Junior: Like having been there.

0:31:12.7 Tim Clark: Having been there.

0:31:12.8 Junior: You see that person a little bit differently.

0:31:13.0 Tim Clark: Yeah, you do.

0:31:13.1 Junior: And this is another thread, but I think it has a lot to do with what we consider social regard, right? How do you regard other people? And is there this threshold level of regard that you give them that's non-performative?

0:31:27.7 Tim Clark: That's right.

0:31:28.4 Junior: Okay. So, how does all of this affect leadership? Contingent self-esteem negatively affect leaders, why? What does it have to do with leadership, Tim?

0:31:42.3 Tim Clark: Well, I hope listeners can see the connection. I hope it's just screaming at you. What it does is, if you're affected, if you're overly affected by the negative aspects of contingent self-esteem, it creates chronic insecurity in you as a leader. That's the last thing you need to be, is chronically insecure as a leader. Think about what a barrier that is when you're trying to lead a team. You're preoccupied with gaining approval and validation. If you keep doing that, you're placing your own distorted self-interest above your stewardship as a leader. Think about all the dysfunctional leadership patterns that that will lead to, right? Chronic insecurity, how can you lead a team? So, I think that's the problem, Junior.

0:32:32.4 Junior: Well, there are so many consequences first second, third order consequences as a result of the insecurity of the leader. If we have self-doubt at the level of the leader, we're gonna get a lot of indecision. If we have high contingent self-esteem, we're gonna struggle with making decisions. Why? For fear of making mistakes. There's the performance piece for losing the approval of their team. There's the relation piece. Micromanagement. If we say, wow, we need to control to make sure that we get a success, that's gonna lead to micromanagement. Toxic positivity, that's another one. If we focus only on the positive outcomes, we downplay the challenges. We create an unrealistic work environment. We discourage open communication. Now we build this whole facade, we create this unreality.

0:33:20.7 Tim Clark: And then comes the dysfunctional nice culture, right?

0:33:22.1 Junior: Yep. Yeah. Well, and you also see this is something that you called out that insecure leaders talk a lot.

0:33:31.0 Tim Clark: Oh yeah. Go ahead and talk about that. It drives me crazy.

0:33:36.0 Junior: Well, no, you talk about it. You noticed it.

0:33:38.6 Tim Clark: Well, I've noticed this pattern over the last 30 years working with some leaders, incessant talking. Have you been around a leader that simply cannot stop talking? Why are they doing that? The more they talk, the more insulated and the less self-aware they become. Who wants to work for a leader like that? It's beyond annoying. It is exasperating and it's discouraging. They just can't stop talking.

0:34:12.4 Junior: So, how does that affect teams? How does this insecurity affect the team itself? Low morale. If a leader is dependent on external validation, that creates a team environment where we're constantly seeking praise. We decrease motivation engagement where there's high fear of failure. If we emphasize performance-based self-esteem, that can make people feel Hey, you know what? I'm not gonna take any risks. I'm not gonna experiment for fear of disappointing a leader. What else happens? Competition over collaboration. When self-worth is tied to individual achievement, a really competitive atmosphere emerges. And what happens to teamwork? What happens to knowledge sharing? All of those things that we need for sustainable innovation go down. So, if this is what happens when we have contingent self-esteem, let's not do that. Or pathological contingent self-esteem, let's not do that. So, we need to build more of the right kind of self-esteem.

0:35:17.6 Junior: And here comes the question teed off in the beginning, is more self-esteem good? Which begs another question. Can self-esteem become pathological? And the answer to that question is, yes. Self-esteem pushed too far, made pathological results in narcissism. So, there is a really interesting paper. Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, and Vohs 2003, and I'm gonna read just a section. The historical assumption in psychology has been that high self-esteem is beneficial, and low self-esteem is detrimental. However, a more nuanced view of self-esteem has emerged, suggesting the benefits of high trait self-esteem are restricted to enhanced initiative and happiness. That's fascinating to me. The initiative piece is particularly interesting to me. Crocker and Park 2004, point out that self-esteem is associated with self-focus, interpersonal and achievement goals and high self-esteem can produce costs in terms of, here are a few: Loss of relatedness, increased competitiveness, and lower concern for group wellbeing. What does that sound like? Narcissism?

0:36:28.6 Tim Clark: Oh, yeah.

0:36:29.0 Junior: Right. So, these researchers argue that psychologists should be less concerned in fostering the amount of self-esteem and more concerned with the processes by which individuals pursue it. And then they go into this alternative of self-compassion, which is pretty interesting that they believe may have many of the benefits of self-esteem without some of the drawbacks. But the narcissism piece in this is interesting, which makes it more complicated. Now you may be saying, well, just like tell me the thing, like pull out the practical, right? But I'm convinced that sharing this context is appropriate. I'm convinced that it's necessary in order to inform what comes after. What do we take away from this and actually do that has to be informed by the context? A more nuanced understanding of how these things work together will create a better plan.

0:37:24.0 Tim Clark: Junior, I want to add to the pile just a little bit.

0:37:27.0 Junior: Okay.

0:37:28.0 Tim Clark: So, we're going to the other extreme where maybe there's too much and we get into, as you said, pathological narcissism, hubris. So, I want to add, there's an academic paper that I just reread. It's called 'Towards an Organisational Theory of Hubris' by Dennis Tourish at the University of Sussex in the UK. And he just points out more of those liabilities that are associated with narcissism or hubris, such as, so to add to the pile, and these are patterns that he identified in his research: Recklessness, overconfidence and over persistence, abusive behavior, contempt for critical feedback, self-interested behaviors, insulation from reality, sense of omnipotence, not feeling accountable, loss of contact with reality, unwilling to consider unwanted outcomes. That's how you make poor decisions. Wow. So, I'm just adding to the pile there.

0:38:39.5 Junior: Yeah. Do you want that leader in the organization leading other people? No. We absolutely don't. So, let's go down the self-compassion road for just a second, because I think that some of this is worth calling out. We can nurture self-compassion in addition to, or in some cases, instead of self-esteem, especially when we've pushed that too far. And there's a self-compassion researcher named Professor Kristin Neff. She describes self-compassion as a combination of nurturing self-kindness over self-judgment, a sense of humanity over isolation, and a sense of mindfulness rather than over-identification. So, some of those comparisons I think are really neat. Self-kindness over self-judgment. So, orientation is different. A sense of humanity over isolation. So, there's this idea of connectedness that protects us. And a person experiencing distress who exercises self-compassion would be gentle rather than harsh and critical. They'd recognize that they're not alone and in the study, self-compassion, not self-esteem, was significantly linked with greater relationship satisfaction. So, the presence of self-compassion predicted more positive relationship behaviors and less negative behaviors. So, that's a thread that might be worth pulling on.

0:40:12.0 Junior: If you think that that self-compassion idea is interesting, we can link some stuff, and there's some more homework for you to do, but it's proximal enough to what we're talking about that I thought it was worth calling home. So, let's get into the tactics. We want to develop a more independent or less conditional sense of self-worth based on effort and pursuit. We want to value ourselves for who we are and what we do, not just for what we achieve or how others perceive us. So, there's this effort versus outcome idea and yet we have to acknowledge that the social information and response we get back is important. It should influence our behavior to a degree, but let's get into three. These are three takeaways that we hope will be useful as you move away from this episode. The first is find your why.

0:41:07.5 Junior: Now, this may seem, I don't know if it's counterintuitive, but maybe a little left field, maybe a little surprising. Why? Because finding a really durable why stabilizes your life. It helps become intrinsic. This is true personally. It's true organizationally. I've seen this time and time again with teams, with organizations, with leaders. If there is a North Star that we can align behind, that will help pull us through and stabilize a lot of what would otherwise be really big peaks and valleys. So Tim, if there weren't a longer term durable why in the football example, and it was just outcome based, performance based achievement, what happens to your ability to have self worth if you literally can no longer play that season? It becomes impossible.

0:42:11.0 Tim Clark: Yeah, you're devastated.

0:42:12.4 Junior: It's impossible.

0:42:13.4 Tim Clark: You're devastated. Your sense of self is crushed. And so you have to move away from that and you find yourself going back to your intrinsic sense of self-worth and identity and you may have a religious or metaphysical tradition. I do. And so I look to a higher power and that helps me to say, oh, okay, well, I guess I really don't. I'm not going to care what the coach said. I don't care. So, he thinks I'm invisible and we have this contingent self-esteem thing going on. Now, I couldn't articulate those words when I was 18, but I'm not having that. I'm not going to be beholden to his approval or lack of approval. I'm not going to give him that kind of power. I'm not doing that. And that's what I said to myself.

0:43:12.2 Junior: I think literally answering this question of why we do the things that we do is useful. Why do you want to be a leader? And really think about that. Why do you want to be a leader? And if you find yourself answering this question, it starts to become more about external factors. Social approval and some of these things, it's worth taking a second and a third look and peeling back those layers and saying, why am I really doing this?

0:43:40.7 Tim Clark: Yes.

0:43:44.7 Junior: Because your effectiveness as a leader will be dependent upon the why. If your why is misplaced, other people will feel that. You'll eventually have to come to terms with it. And you will be more likely to face failure in a whole bunch of different ways if that why is misplaced. And so I can't tell you what the why should be, but I can give you some patterns. If that why is more about contribution, chances are you're going to be better off, right? So, there are some things that are worth thinking about here, but find your why I think can really stabilize a person's life and esteem.

0:44:29.0 Tim Clark: I got to add a comment here as you talk about this, especially the motivation to be a leader. I can't help but think of David Foster Wallace's statement that there are no atheists. We all worship. And so if you worship status, and that's why you want to get into the game, at some point, you're going to be not only disappointed, not only discouraged, but you're going to be devastated. That's not an altar you want to worship at, right? If that comes as a byproduct of your great leadership, okay, fantastic. But I would not recommend that anyone worship at that altar.

0:45:18.0 Junior: Well, not only will you be devastated, the people around you will be devastated the people that you are supposed to be influencing and helping along every day, they're going to be devastated too.

0:45:26.7 Tim Clark: Yeah.

0:45:28.0 Junior: And is that not the product of your influence? It certainly is.

0:45:33.0 Tim Clark: It is.

0:45:33.2 Junior: Okay. Here's number two. Celebrate effort, not outcomes. This has to do with yourself. It has to do with other people. We're looking at effort. Focus on mastery over outcome. What does mastery bring? Control. We have control of what we're doing. Resilience. We're on a longer trajectory. There's more distance to cover. And so we know we have to get over the little bumps. We're going to be more resilient over time. Long-term growth, process, enjoyment. So, effort versus outcomes. If you haven't read Carol Dweck's work, do it. And this is a big theme coming out of her research is celebrate effort not outcomes, in children, adolescent, adults, everyone forever should be celebrating effort not outcomes. And it's not to say that you can't celebrate milestones. But the real celebration, the real satisfaction should come from putting in the effort every day. And you can also... So, one of the angles to think about self-esteem, we've kind of oriented around ourselves because self-esteem. But if you think about building others' esteem, this is a really important one.

0:46:57.1 Junior: Because if you start celebrating the outcomes, what does that do? That says that the default position, back to what Tim said toward the beginning of the episode, the default position is exclusion and that the expectations are unmet until we achieve the thing. And so that becomes really damaging. That's debilitating for people. And so if they in engaging with you think that, hey, the only way that I'm valuable is if I meet this objective, we have an issue. So, in our orientation to other people, they need to feel accepted and they need to feel a sense of belonging that's not contingent on the outcome. And so if we can celebrate the effort along the way, that's going to be better. Recognize hard work and dedication put in by your team, not just the final outcome. What do you think about that one?

0:47:54.8 Tim Clark: No. I think that's true. I want to add a point, Junior, and that is that much of self-esteem comes when you forget about yourself and you just go out and you engage in esteemable acts to help and benefit and lift and encourage others. So, you get out of yourself. And in a paradoxical way, you build yourself through that process. You're not obsessing on yourself, you're not preoccupied with yourself, you're out engaged in esteemable acts that benefit others. Wow. It works that way. It does. It really does work that way. So, I think we need to forget about ourselves to a large extent.

0:48:52.0 Junior: Third and finally, promote a healthy dose of self-compassion. Encourage leaders and team members to be kind to themselves in the face of setbacks and try to foster a more resilient and supportive work environment. And I love those comparisons called out earlier, nurturing self-kindness over self-judgment, a sense of humanity over isolation, and a state of mindfulness rather than over-identification. So, those three things, think about one in particular that calls my attention today is humanity over isolation. Self-esteem, ironically or perhaps not, is built in concert with other people and you can help foster theirs as you build your own. And this idea of contribution, this idea of service is an important one. So Tim, any final thoughts today as we wrap up?

0:49:48.0 Tim Clark: As humans, we're social creatures. To be human is to interact. I would just say, beware the dangers of contingent self-esteem in that process.

0:50:03.0 Junior: Excellent. Well, thank you everyone for your time, your attention today. We appreciate your listenership very much. We'll throw a few links in the show notes. I think that the contingent self-esteem scale is something that everyone should go and look at. It'll give you an idea of where you're at and certainly some things to think about. It did for me. So, we hope you enjoyed the episode. If you did, please leave us a like, a review and share with a friend. And with that, we'll wrap up and we'll see you next episode. Bye-bye.


0:50:38.2 Junior: Hey, Culture by Design listeners, this is the end of today's episode. You can find all the important links from today's episode at forward/podcast. And if you found today's episode helpful and useful in any way, please share with a friend and leave a review. If you'd like to learn more about LeaderFactor and what we do, then please visit us at Lastly, if you'd like to give any feedback to the Culture by Design podcast or even request a topic from Tim and Junior, then reach out to us at or find and tag us on LinkedIn. Thanks again for listening and making culture something you do by design, not by default.


Show Notes

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Episode Transcript

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