Bogus Self-Esteem and the Dangers of Shallow Praise

By Dan Rockwell

Whatever you do, don’t criticize or correct. You might damage someone’s self-esteem. (Sarcasm intended.)

Bolstering, maintaining, and protecting self-esteem is the sacred cow of modern society. It’s a grievous evil to do anything that might cause others to feel bad about themselves or their performance.

Bogus self-esteem:

If you want to feel good about yourself, be good and do good. But don’t feel good about yourself just because you showed up – unless showing up reflects your peak performance.

Baumeister et al. write, “Always praising and never criticizing may feel good to everyone concerned, but the data we have reviewed do not show that such an approach will produce desirable outcomes.”

“… Hitler … attracted followers by offering them self-esteem that was not tied to achievement or ethical behavior—rather, he told them that they were superior beings simply by virtue of being themselves, members of the so-called Master Race, an idea that undoubtedly had a broad, seductive appeal.”

Shallow praise:

  1. Cheapens excellence.
  2. Encourages arrogance.
  3. Inspires indulgence.

Those who feel good about themselves for – no good reason – legitimize exploitation. They’re offended when challenged or corrected. They desire advantage without earning it.

Legitimate self-esteem:

Praise-worthy achievement, virtue, and effortful-work are foundations of legitimate self-esteem.

It’s normal, even healthy, to feel sad when you do bad.

“We encourage linking self-esteem to learning and improvement.”

“… As the person performs or behaves better, self-esteem is encouraged to rise, and the net effect will be to reinforce both good behavior and improvement.” Baumeister et al.

What dangers do you see in bogus self-esteem?

How might leaders help people feel good about themselves?

The context of encouragement is disappointment. When you eliminate disappointment, you devalue encouragement.

Bonus material:

Self-Esteem Check: Too Low or Just Right, Mayo Clinic

High Self-Esteem Isn’t Always Healthy, WebMD

Note: Self-worth and self-esteem are separate issues. All human begins have worth. Baby boys and little girls have worth beyond cats and dogs. This post defines self-esteem as positive feelings about our self.

This post was previously published on Leadership Freak and is republished here with a Creative Commons license.

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Photo credit: iStock