Why Low Self-esteem Could Be Good for Leadership

Written by Adrian Furnham Monday 08 January 2018
Motivation and Likeability Are Greater for Those With Low-esteem

For nearly 30 years it has been an accepted fact in psychology that low self-esteem was the root cause of many social and personal problems particularly among young people.  Thus everything from delinquency to school failure was due, in major part, to low self-esteem. Hence the development and proliferation of the self-esteem movement, which attempted through a variety of clinical and educational interventions set out to raise the esteem of various targeted groups. The assumption was because self-esteem has such powerful causal power it was the most efficient way to improve the lot of various groups that experienced a variety of social and psychological problems.

Studies in many of the social, medical and clinical sciences seemed to suggest the link was clearly established. Thousands of popular books in the self-help tradition endorsed the message.  A few, often moral, voices were raised about the issue of the disconnection between praise and achievement and the possible implications of the pervasive discourse of constant affirmation.

Indeed Twenge (2006) argued that individuals born 1970 – 1990 were the ‘Generation Me’ cohort with elevated feelings of egotism, entitlement and self-centredness.  It is an argument for the consistent secular increase in narcissism.

Emler (2005) who did a careful, critical evaluation of the literature.  His conclusion was essentially that there is little evidence for the causal power of low self-esteem causing social problems or for that matter, of the efficacy of programmes that attempted to raise it.

Emler argued that low self-esteem could have beneficial motivational characteristics while high self-esteem could lead to arrogant, conceited, self-satisfied behaviour rather than provide specific benefits.

This idea has been taken up by my colleague Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in this 2013 book, Confidence. He argues that we are told that the key to success in life and business is confidence: believe in yourself, and the world is your oyster. Yet millions of people feel themselves to be hindered by low self-confidence.
In Confidence, he shows us that high confidence makes us less likeable, less employable, and less successful in the long run. He showed the benefits of low confidence (including being more motivated and self-aware), teaches us how to know when to fake it, get ahead at work, improve our social skills, feel better emotionally and physically, and much more.

In addition to reviews, experimental studies began to show the negative effects of high self-esteem.  That is, they appeared to show that people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to themselves and others than those with low self-esteem.

In fact if anything the opposite is true. Still others have shown that self-esteem can have both positive and negative consequences. If people derive their self-esteem from external factors like physical appearance they may be prone to mental health problems such as eating disorders (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001).

Managers Need to Self-evaluate

The essence of the argument is that we need to be accurate in self-evaluation, which is about our competencies with both a spirit of acceptance and realism.  To be self-accepting we need to take responsibility for our actions. Hence there is a difference between authentic or genuine self-esteem and external or false self-esteem.  The former is internal and under our control, the latter external and under the control of others which may be insecure and fickle.

The Narcisistic Leader

Similarly it is important to try to distinguish between unhealthy narcissism with all its ego-inflatedness and self-absorbed vanity and genuine, correct and appropriate high self-esteem. Those with narcissism are dependent on others to affirm them.  In this sense they are highly vulnerable and addicted to their positive affirmations. Thus the genuine narcissist keeps seeking personal validation but this is never enough to convince them of their own adequacy.  Because they do not have genuine high self-esteem they strive to fake it.

There have been various attempts to make differentiations in the narcissism literature, which spans psychiatry and psychology. It has been conceived as a type and a trait even a psychological process. There have been studies on overt (more exhibitionistic and aggressive) vs covert (anxious, defensive, vulnerable) narcissists (Otway & Vignoles, 2006) and many attempts to differentiate “healthy”, “productive” narcissism from “unhealthy, “destructive” narcissism.  Indeed there appears to be some differences when there is a “clinical” vs “non-clinical” account of narcissism (Campbell, 2001).  This problem may be resolved by the trait concept whereby it is possible to locate everybody on the self-esteem – narcissistic trait.  Clinicians may see only extreme cases that are recommended for therapy while personality and organisational psychologists see less “extreme cases” who appear “relatively” well adjusted.

Those with self-awareness and neither hubris nor humility with respect to the abilities and talents do best. It may be paradoxically very unwise and unhealthy to concentrate on raising self-esteem when it is not in alignment with actual capabilities.

Further Reading

Baumeister, R., Campbell, J., Krueger, J., & Volis, K. (2003).  Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness and healthier lifestyles?  Psychological science in the public interest, 4, 1 – 44.

Campbell, W. (2001). Is narcissism really so bad?  Psychological Inquiry, 12,  214 – 216.

Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2014). Confidence. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Crocker, J., & Wolfe, C. (2001).  Contingencies of self worth.  Psychologist Review, 108,  593 – 623

Emler, N. (2005). The costs and causes of low self-esteem. Unpublished paper: LSE.

Otway, L., & Vignoles, V. (2006).  Narcissism and childhood recollections.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32,  104 – 116.

Twenge, J. (2006).  Generation Me.  New York: Free Press.

Adrian Furnham

Adrian Furnham