What lies within

The hidden impact of corporate self-esteem - and why ‘radical integrity’ is vital to building it.

Do corporations have self-esteem?

It’s an interesting question. As human beings, our levels of self-esteem have a huge bearing on how we show up in the world. High self-esteem predicts greater success and better health. But low self-esteem is a killer. Could the same be true of businesses?

Start with definition. By 'corporate self-esteem', I don’t mean how businesses manage their status signifiers. This is not a matter of, say, branding. It’s a question of whether organisations have an intrinsic sense of self-worth. And, if that is the case, how it might impact corporate behaviour.

Carl Jung wrote of the collective unconscious. This is the structure of the non-conscious mind that creatures of the same species share. A rough corporate parallel might be culture. Businesses are, of course, collections of people, hoping to prosper through group endeavour. As they work, they amass a raft of assumptions and stories about what gets done, when and how. This is culture.

Our collective experience of the world shapes culture: what we do, and what others do to us. Culture is emotional, not rational, in nature.

Consider a business that pulls a fast one with a supplier. It doesn’t pay on time, then offers a reduced settlement for work already done. The supplier rolls over, preferring to avoid costly legal action. The business enjoys a short-term boost to its P&L and cashflow. "It's a dog-eat-dog world," says the Board, sanctioning the behaviour.

But people are not stupid. Employees know that this action has negative consequences for others. Hidden deep in the narrative of “it doesn’t matter” or, worse, “we got away with it”, is a sense of guilt or shame. Over time, such stories compound and compact, like layers of crud. Workers now know that their business mistreats other businesses. They assume that they might suffer a similar fate. They emulate the poor behaviour, hoping that their compliance will save them. In doing this, they sacrifice their pride in themselves and their employer. Their collective self-esteem shrinks, as a lack of pride becomes part of the culture. They stop bringing their best selves to work.

Now consider a business that treats the same supplier well. It pays good money for work done, on time, and continues to honour its obligations even when the going gets tough. The narrative that springs up around this is one of integrity: doing the right thing, no matter what the cost. Such stories also compound, like interest. Workers know that their business is honourable in its dealings with others. They believe that this will hold true in its dealings with them. They emulate the good behaviour. Their collective self-esteem gets a boost. Pride, morale and productivity follow.

People in businesses make lots of small decisions each day. Together they number in the hundreds, even thousands. And their impact on the culture is cumulative, for better or for worse. 

As in the individual, so in the collective.

And something else: no-one gets away with anything in the end.

The only two factors that count

“Why do good people create bad workplaces?” This is Corporate Punk’s animating question. It’s a simple one, with a complex answer—more complex than I have space for here. But self-esteem is part of the equation.

Your level of corporate self-esteem is not grounded in your balance sheet. It is not a consequence of the size of your workforce. It is not the fact that you have a nice logo to slap on everything.

As in life, so in business. Only two factors influence your level of corporate self-esteem:

  1. Your perception of your value

  2. Your connection to your values

And you don't get to pretend that this is other people’s work: your boss's, your Board's, whoever. You are the system you buy into. You are the system that pays you.

1. Standing firm in your value

Professionalism derives from the principle that your knowledge, skills and experience have worth. It is probable that you have spent years acquiring them. As a result, you are in a position to act in service of others. And those people, unable to do what you can do, should pay for the benefit.

This should not be a difficult concept to embrace. Yet a cursory glance at many industries suggests the opposite. Consider the business model of, say, the recruitment industry. The default is that clients only pay when a role gets filled. (Search and selection is the exception.) Marketing, advertising and PR run along similar lines: free pitching is the norm. And consultants often wind up consulting, with no pay, in the guise of prospecting. 

People who believe their skills have worth do not entertain prejudicial risk asymmetry.

This issue can also dog entire teams and departments. Experience suggests that in B2B organisations, sales teams tend to rule the roost. (Money talks, despite the fact that it has little to say.) Seeking to appease sales, many marketing departments become supplicants. In financial services, those running the money often enjoy carte blanche. Those around them quake in fear of black marks.

People who believe their skills have worth do not submit to bullying behaviour.

Then there are individuals—you and I, doing our jobs each day. There are brave and brilliant people in every business. But they are exceptional. Many people in the corporate world perform two jobs. The first is their actual job. The second is managing perceptions of how well they’re doing the first. 

People who believe their skills have worth do not rely on internal PR.

Why is this behaviour rife? One explanation is imposter syndrome. This is an emerging area of psychological study. But data already suggests that prevalence might be over 80% in some populations. Many of us, it seems, feel unworthy of the jobs we get paid to do. In the same, peer-reviewed analysis, scientists studying the phenomenon noted its impact. Such feelings are “associated with fear of failure, fear of success, and low self-esteem. Employees...report less career planning and motivation to lead.”

An uncomfortable question arises during any meaningful discussion of this subject. It derives from brutal logic: half of us are below average at our jobs. What, then, if you actually are an imposter? What if you are not that good at what you do? What if you don’t have much value in which to stand firm?

This line of thought is bleak, yet seductive for those of us who are prone to imposter syndrome. But it ignores four truths. The first is that imposter syndrome does not correlate to job performance. The study referenced above proves this. The second is that even below average people can add value to others. For example, you might be a less skilled consultant than some of your peers. This does not mean you can’t help your clients. The third is that helpful contributions can come in all shapes and sizes. Our levels of knowledge, skills and experience are always multidimensional. A below-average accountant may still be a brilliant people manager. Finally, there is the fact that people and businesses can and do improve. If we have a baseline belief in our own worth, we will seek ways to fulfil our potential.

The principle, then, is simple. Corporate self-esteem relies upon a shared belief in professionalism. This is a question of confidence, not arrogance. Arrogance is a lack of confidence in wolf’s clothing.

How do you build this confidence, which feels so alien to so many of us? It isn’t easy: we are all conditioned to keep the peace in the hope that doing so will keep us safe in the tribe. And the world does not care about your self-esteem. 

Start with yourself. People will often ask you to give away your value, or compromise your standards. These requests can come in all shapes and sizes. A potential client might want free work, promising future reward. Or your boss might instruct you to enact wrongful orders, no questions asked. 

Imposter syndrome is only cured by behaving as though you do not suffer from it. So your response might take its cue from a helpful (if confrontational) question, asked with a wink. “What kind of shit business do you think we’re running here?”

Professionals act like professionals. In doing so, they develop high self-esteem. As in the individual, so in the collective.

2. Standing firm in your values

Values matter. They inform a sense of group identity and guide behavioural standards. They influence a large amount of what gets done in a business and why. They have a bearing on long-term strategy. They also inform day-to-day management.

The first hurdle many organisations seem to face is capturing them. A lot of needless ink gets spilled on this pursuit. It can amount to little more than an exercise in pushing vague adjectives round on paper.

You can define your real values with one simple exercise. Identify why your business fired (or, you know, “downsized”) six people in recent memory. Set aside instances of gross misconduct. Chances are that values violations lay at the root of those decisions. Invert those examples through 180-degrees and, bingo, those are your actual values. A business that fires someone for being rude to customers values courtesy. A business that fires an employee for misreading a client values emotional intelligence. And so on.

Now we face another problem: your values might not flatter you or your business. (Question: might this explain the difficulties your organisation faced in capturing them?)

In reality, this means you have two options: change your organisation’s values, or ship out.

Changing your corporate values—changing them for good—is not an easy task. They tend to get hardcoded in corporate DNA, and embedded through long-standing experience. But it is not impossible, if a genuine will exists to do so. What creates this will? The understanding that high corporate self-esteem is good for business, and vice-versa.

In truth, there is no right or wrong answer to the question of what your values should be. Both your market and your own ethical sense should act as guides. But if you are unsure about where to start, there is a golden rule. It captures an innate, spiritual law of humanity. It is this: treat others as you would wish them to treat you, or reap the consequences. A business that builds its values on this simple principle cannot go far wrong.

The only other option available to you is to leave the organisation. Decent values are not luxuries. You do not get to excuse poor behaviour because you have a mortgage to pay. Treating other people well is a choice, but not a consequence-free one. As you do to others, they will do to you. There are many examples of CEOs who reach the top by knifing others in the back. Without exception, they end up meeting the same fate.

We don’t talk about the concept of “soul” in business, and we should. We all sell our time and skills at work. But you need to decide whether your soul is also for sale. If it is, you are accepting that you can live with the damage. As any decent psychologist will tell you, no-one gets away with anything in the end.

Assuming you have good values, and you capture them well, the final hurdle is enforcement.

This is the secret to healthy corporate self-esteem: a zero-tolerance policy to violation.

Again, the world will challenge you on this front. Practicing open and honest conversation is easy until you’re talking to your spiky CEO. Practicing good customer service is easy until the phone rings at 5.58pm when you’re dog-tired and want to get home. Practicing integrity is easy until the numbers start going down and a fast buck presents itself.

Your values are the things that cost you. They are also among the best investments you can make.

Like the concept of soul, in business we also don’t talk enough about the concept of forgiveness. When I speak of ‘zero tolerance’, I do not mean that you should meet any minor violation with a nuclear response. There are many degrees and types of redress, in the same way that there are many violations. Forgiveness means ‘to let go’. It doesn’t mean ‘to ignore’. It is vital that you do not let negative behaviour slide.

People in businesses make lots of small decisions each day. If you ensure that those decisions are in service of good values, self-esteem follows.

So: you do not deviate from your commitment to your values. You understand that good values won’t stop your organisation making mistakes. Above all, you do not sell your soul, and you do not ask other people to sell theirs.

Radical integrity: the rescue remedy

Standing firm in your value, and firm in your values, are the only ways to develop self-esteem. This applies to organisations as much as it does to individuals.

This requires what I call ‘radical integrity’. That is the willingness to do to others as you would have them do to you, no matter the cost.

Why is this level of integrity radical? For one thing, it flies in the face of a dominant ‘dog-eat-dog’ capitalist belief system. Indeed, you could argue that it flies in the face of capitalism itself. Does integrity not undermine profitability?

This speaks to another element of its radicalism: the fact that it requires faith. The challenge with doing good is that the consequences can take time to materialise. That is, if they ever materialise at all. Your job is to do good anyway. The other choice, of course, is to do wrong. You will find that the consequences boomerang back, and often fast.

The evidence exists to support the fact that radical integrity is good for business. Look at companies like Richer Sounds, Timpsons, Hays Travel and John Lewis Partnership. They put their value and their values first. They make employee welfare their primary focus. Some have even become employee-owned. Long term, what rewards have they reaped? They have dedicated team members. Their owners and leaders are wealthy. Their customers love them. And, yes, they have high self-esteem.

But they are also exceptional: another example of how radical real integrity is.

Radical integrity requires a daily commitment to professionalism, and to enforcing good values. Each of us has two obligations in this regard. The first is to hold ourselves to account: our own house needs to be in order. Then, we need to hold our organisations to account. We must embrace zero tolerance. We must develop the art of courageous conversations. We must forgive others and ask them to forgive us. These become daily practices—and they are both ruthless and compassionate, at once.

Start talking

Developing radical integrity is not an overnight task. In reality, it’s the work of a lifetime: we all fall short sometimes. But that is no excuse for quitting before you start.

Make an inventory of where you are succeeding and failing to stand firm in both your value and your values. Then ask others for examples. Ask them, too, if you’re clear about your collective values—and if those values are serving you. Listen to the answers you get, no matter how unpalatable they might be.

From there you can build your practice—and take it to your organisation. Now, imagine ‘self-esteem’ as an agenda item in your next Board meeting. Summon up the courage to discuss it—and prepare for impact.

For more information about how Phil and the team at Corporate Punk can help your business, head over to our website.