How to work with people with low self-esteem?

By Nan Nan Liu-Maffetone | Strong Female Leaders | Reading Time: Approx. 5 min
Despite having academic accolades, successful careers and incontestable intelligence, some of the knowledge professionals that you work with can still have low self-esteem. They can be unaware of how they come across, and therefore cause frustration and resentment, lower morale and motivation, hurt productivity, and increase the likelihood of others leaving the team. If you work with someone with low self-esteem and lacks self-awareness, how can you both cope and help the person improve? The good news is: there are ways. Scroll down and find out what you can do.

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How to work with people with low self-esteem?
1. Identify the behaviors.
First, assess the person's behaviors. Does she do any of the following?
  • Pointing fingers at others for failures and taking credit from others for successes.
  • Refusing to accept critical feedback.
  • Failing to empathize with others and see things from others' perspective.
  • Having difficulties reading the audience.
  • Inflating her responsibilities and contributions to the greater organization.
  • Hurting others without even realizing it.
  • If the person meets some of the criteria above, then proceed to identify her intention.
    2. Identify the intention.
    The stark difference between a challenging personality and workplace bully is intention. If someone is truly unaware, then there is the possibility for him to improve.
    If someone is a real bully, however, he intends to put others down in order to hype himself up. As difficult as it is to work with the bully, trust that his behaviors will not last long. Instilling fear in the work place will eventually amount to poor morale, plunging productivity, in-the-red financial reports, and at the worst, an HR nightmare.
    If the bully's organizational superiors are savvy and experienced, they will "gingerly divert" his time to handle less people-oriented tasks before an explosion occurs.
    If you can no longer tolerate the behavior, look in the mirror and trust that you have the ability to succeed anywhere. Then, walk away.
    In the case of a challenging personality, however, you can try to help alleviate tension within the team. There is a high probability that you might fail, so take time to decide whether the person is worth the effort or not. Overcoming low self-esteem must, after all, initiate from the person.
    3. Decide if your effort is going to be worth it.
    To help yourself decide, answer the following questions:
    1) Are you the right person to take action in this situation?
    Without trust, an unaware indiviual with low self-esteem has difficulties accepting feedback. She doubts herself and therefore everyone else as well. If there is trust between you and her, then proceed. If not, then channel your energy towards relationships that better-deserve your attention.
    2) Do you have a plan B if the worst-case scenario happens?
    Taking this on is very risky. A person with low self-esteem often gets angry over minute details and attacks in even the most peaceful situations. If the worst-case scenario happens, you will, at the minimum, experience uncomfortable reactions such as yelling or being humiliated in public. More disturbingly is that you might suffer serious consequences such as the person sabotaging your career and getting you terminated.
    If the person currently has an organizationally superior title than you, the consequences can be even more damaging.
    If you truly believe that you can help her, then go for it. But if the risk-to-reward ratio is too high, then it is in your best interest to keep a healthy distance.
    3) Do you have a plan for delivering the message?
    Prior to reaching out to the person, you should formulate a step-by-step plan. Consider the following recommendations:
    Step 1: Talk to her in person. Find the right time, for example a Friday afternoon or during downtime between projects. You should also consider taking her out of the tense environment at work. You might want to ask her to coffee or propose a walk at the nearby trail. Be professional and polite, and most importantly, ensure that she is in a friendly mood.
    Step 2: Come from a place of concern for her health and well-being. If you truly care about the person's, and ultimately your team's, mental health, you will come off as genuine. If not, then you really shouldn't take this task on. Being insincere will get you nowhere.
    Step 3: Focus on behavior, not personality. Your aim is to help, not to attack. When addressing concerns, focus on specific behaviors and support with solid examples. Words such as "I noticed that you used a strong tone with Sam during the meeting" sounds less accusing than "you have a strong personality, and your tone today showed it."
    4) Can you protect your own mental health?
    A person with low self-esteem carries negative energy. What if she begins to impact your own mental health? If you want to continue to help her, then prepare practical methhods for when conversations take a negative direction.
    Below are some methods to consider:
    a. Hashtag It
    Each time you are about to encounter the person, write on a piece of paper, or even on your palm, a hashtag of the outcome that you want. For example, if you aim to limit a specific conversation with the person, then write the hashtag "#wrapitup." Or, if you want to avoid tension, then write the hashtag "#youareright" so you can use that phrase to boost her ego and lessen the likelihood of her turning the conversation into an argument.
    b. Write a mental gratitude journal.
    It is amazing how gratitude can turn any situation into a positive one. If conversations start to go south, begin a mental gratitude journal in your head. Create a list of everything that you are thankful for, like "I am so happy and grateful to have good health," "I am so happy and grateful to have a supportive spouse," and "I am so happy and grateful to take a vacation this year."
    Whatever good you have in your life, even the clean water that you drink, can turn into a piece of gratitude. While negative energy is all around you, your grateful mindset will build a force field that keeps you inside a cocoon of positivity.
    c. Play the turn-anything-positive game in your head.
    A person with low self-esteem often speaks negatively and picks on little things. If you find yourself at the receiving end of her critical and belittling words, attach words of compliment to each sentence. Do this in your head or utter under your breath. Here are some examples:
    Person: "You weren't specific enough in your request, so how am I supposed to provide an answer?"
    In your head: "You weren't specific enough in your request; However, I appreciate you reaching out to me over the phone and explaining further. I am glad to have worked everything out with minimal back-and-forth."
    Person: "Your team didn't follow the process correctly; and that is why the project failed."
    In your head: "Your team didn't follow the process correctly; but, that is not why the project failed. It is unfair to blame one single team. Maybe both of our teams can collaborate on a process diagram that better-conveys the procedure in its entirety?"
    4. Find a complementary partner.
    Perhaps the insecure person is in the wrong environment or feels unsupported? Perhaps he just needs a friend, and particularly a friend with complementary skillset or personality? If you can, try to guide him closer to a complementary partner.
    For example, if he is detail-oriented and technically-inclined, consider having him work closely with a team member who has excellent soft skills. If he often speaks with a harsh tone, consider pairing him with a less intuitive person who normally wouldn't notice tonality.
    We all have our "people." Perhaps the solution is to simply match him with his own special person.
    5. Be patient.
    People change. If the individual isn't the most desirable person to deal with now, she might get better over time. It takes a while to build confidence, so give her a chance.
    If time after time, she reverts to her old ways, then you should certainly reconsider your decision to help. Before that, though, be the bigger person and be patient.

    Parting Thoughts
    As risky as it is to help the insecure, it can also bring a sense of pride if you succeed. In fact, you might even gain an ally. During the process, you might get frustrated, lose your cool, or even lose yourself. Remember that it was your choice, and now you are committed. Also remember that this person is a human being who is struggling with deep-rooted issues. So show compassion and understanding, instead of defense and disgust, the next time he flies off the handle.
    When you stop judging and start understanding, you will help both the insecure team member, and yourself, build confidence.
    Need more help? The books below are good resources.
    1) Unstoppable Self Confidence: How to create the indestructible, natural confidence of the 1% who achieve their goals, create success on demand and live life on their terms
    2) The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance---What Women Should Know
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