Self-Esteem and Peak Performance at Work

By Ranjit Singh Malhi, Ph.D.


The purpose of this article is to highlight how high self-esteem contributes to peak performance at work. It begins by defining the terms “self-esteem” and “peak performance”. The article subsequently delves into detail the research findings pertaining to the reciprocal relationship between self-esteem and peak performance at work. It excludes discussion as to how one can become a peak performer or how managers can foster self-esteem in the workplace, issues which have been dealt with in two other articles of mine.1 


In today’s global world characterized by rapid change and stiff business competition, it is imperative for organizations to produce innovative and world-class quality products and services in order to create and maintain the competitive edge. People are increasingly being viewed as the true competitive advantage. The ultimate creators of quality products and services are people, not technology, work processes or formal quality procedures. As stated by Charles Garfield, the emerging wisdom of the peak performing organization is that “it all boils down to people.”2 Many organizations are currently focusing their efforts on unleashing the latent power of its workforce toward attaining higher and sustainable levels of performance; in short, peak performance on the job. 

Meaning of Self-Esteem

Self-esteem can be defined as one’s feeling of self-competence and self-worth. Self-competence is a generalized sense of one’s own efficacy or ability to deal effectively with life’s challenges and to attain challenging goals. Simply put, self-competence is having self-confidence or the conviction that one is generally capable of producing desired results. Cognitively, self-competence is characterized by the presence of a generalized expectancy for success (Fibel & Hale, 1978).3

Self-worth or self-respect is essentially accepting oneself unconditionally and having the feeling that one is worthy of living and attaining happiness; you feel like you matter. As stated by Nathaniel Branden, if either self-competence or self-worth is absent, self-esteem is impaired.4 

What is Peak Performance?

Peak performance can be defined as consistently attaining impressive results or performing at the top of one’s ability in various arenas, including the workplace. Peak performers or high achievers include high performance managers, top salesmen, successful entrepreneurs, and leading professionals. 

Self-Esteem & Peak Performance at Work

Numerous studies show a positive correlation between self-esteem and peak performance at work. For example, Ann Howard and Douglas Bray (1988) found that AT&T managers’ levels of self-esteem significantly predicted their degree of advancement 20 years later.5 In another study involving more than 300 top-level executives from 15 global companies, self-confidence was one of the competencies that distinguished superior performers from average performers.6 As concluded by Richard E. Boyatzis, “Self-confidence appears strongly associated with managerial effectiveness.”7 

Research aside, common sense dictates that our thoughts influence our feelings and behaviour. Our behaviour, consequently, influences our performance. Life is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy. Common sense also dictates that a person who has self-doubt and lacks self-acceptance is unlikely to attain peak performance. How can an individual establish challenging goals if he or she lacks a sense of self-competence or self-efficacy? How can an individual concentrate fully on any undertaking if he or she lacks self-approval? Indeed, research does show that underachievers are generally less confident and less ambitious (Goldberg, 1960), less self-accepting (Shaw & Alves, 1963), and lack a sense of personal worth (Durr & Schmatz, 1964).8 Research also shows that feeling worthless can be depressing (Battle, 1990; Bhatti, 1992; Hokanson, Rubert, Welker, Hollander, & Hedeen, 1989) and depression generally inhibits performance.9 As stated by Mark R. Leary and Deborah L. Downs, “People who feel worthy, able, and competent are more likely to achieve their goals than those who feel worthless, impotent, and incompetent.”10 

It should be noted that the relationship between self-esteem and peak performance is bidirectional i.e. self-esteem and peak performance influence each other.

How Self-Esteem Contributes to Peak Performance at Work

  1. High self-esteem triggers enthusiasm and optimism. It motivates people to pursue their goals and to persevere in the face of obstacles.
  2. Research shows a positive correlation between creativity and self-esteem (Domino, 1971; MacKinnon, 1962).11
  3. Self-esteem enhances the establishment of good interpersonal relations. To form nourishing relationships with others, you must first truly love yourself. It is an established fact that self-respect is the foundation of respect for others. In the words of Virginia Satir, “Good human relations and appropriate and loving behaviour stem from persons of self-worth.”12
  4. Research shows a positive relationship between self-esteem and leadership (Andrews, 1984; Bennis & Nanus, 1985; Kaplan, 1986; Mowday, 1979; Zaleznik, 1977).13 Self-esteem plays a critical role in decision making, inspiring people, and gaining others’ trust. According to Nathaniel Branden, “The higher the self-esteem of a leader, the more likely it is that he or she can inspire the best in others. A mind that does not trust itself cannot inspire greatness in the minds of colleagues and subordinates.”14
  5. People with high self-esteem are likely to have an internal locus of control (Burger, 1992; Daubman, 1990; Schonbach, 1990).15 Internal locus of control people or Internals believe that they largely determine their own outcomes. Research shows that Internals exert greater effort on the job and perform better.16
  6. Relative to low self-esteem individuals, high self-esteem individuals are less negatively affected by chronic stressors such as role ambiguity and conflict (Mossholder, Bedeian, & Armenakis, 1981). They are also more apt to work harder in response to significant negative feedback (Brockner & Elkind, 1985).17

Empowering the Cycle of High Self-Esteem

High expectations facilitate the establishment of challenging goals. Individuals with high self-esteem generally undertake more challenging goals than do individuals with low self-esteem (Bandura, 1989; Waschull & Kernis, 1996).21 

Challenging goals help to stimulate focused and sustained effort. Individuals who have a strong sense of efficacy or self-competence tend to focus their attention and effort on the demands of tasks and to minimize potential difficulties (Bandura, 1986; Cauley, Linder, & McMillan, 1989). Persons with high self-esteem perform better after an initial failure than persons with low self-esteem and are more likely to persevere in the face of obstacles (Brockner, 1979; McFarlin & Blascovich, 1981; Perez, 1973; Schalon, 1968; Shrauger & Sorman, 1977).22 Indeed, self-esteem is a key variable in determining resilience (Rutter, 1985; Werner, 1993).23 

Focused and sustained effort promotes attainment of peak performance which consequently reinforces feelings of high self-esteem. As stated by Nathaniel Branden, reaching demanding and worthwhile goals nurtures good self-esteem.24 

FIGURE 1: Empowering Cycle of High Self-Esteem

Vicious Cycle of Low Self Esteem

Less challenging goals consequently lead to reduced effort and mediocre performance (Campbell & Fairey, 1985; Diggory, Klein, & Cohen, 1964; Wattenberg & Clifford, 1964).30 
Mediocre performance ultimately reinforces one’s feeling of low self-esteem. Research shows that individuals who fail to live up to their own expectations, suffer significant losses in self-esteem (Centi, 1965; Gibby & Gibby, 1967)31 and greater reductions in motivation (Brockner, Derr, & Laing, 1987).32 

FIGURE 2: Vicious Cycle of Low Self-Esteem


Peak performers generally have high self-esteem. As stated by Irwin Federman, “Our individual potential is a direct derivative of our self-esteem.”33 According to Charles Garfield, genuine, sustainable high performance begins with an internal decision to excel.34 This internal decision to excel is unlikely to occur in the case of an individual who is riddled with self-doubt and considers himself or herself as unworthy of achievement or success. In the words of Nathaniel Branden, “It is safe enough to observe that self-esteem makes the path to achievement easier and more likely.”35 


  1. The articles are “How to Become a Peak Performer” and “Fostering Self-Esteem in the Workplace”.
  2. Charles Garfield, Peak Performers: The New Heroes of American Business (New York: Avon Books, 1986), p. 18
  3. Cited in Romin W. Tafarodi and William B. Swann “Self-Liking and Self-Competence as Dimensions of Global Self-Esteem: Validation of a Measure”, Journal of Personality Assessment, Vol. 65, No. 2, June 1995, p. 325.
  4. Nathaniel Branden, “What Is Self-Esteem?” in Student Self-Esteem: A Vital Element of School Success, Vol. 1, ed. Garry R. Walz and Jeanne C. Bleur (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Counseling and Personnel Services, Inc., 1992), p. 18.
  5. Cited in Edwin A. Locke, et al., The Essence of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications (New York: Lexington Books, 1991), p. 27.
  6. Cited in Daniel Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1998), p. 321.
  7. See Richard E. Boyatzis, The Competent Manager: A Model for Effective Performance (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1982), p. 104.
  8. Cited in W. W. Purkey, Self-Concept and School Achievement (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), pp. 20-21.
  9. See William J. Holy, “Students’ Self-Esteem and Academic Achivement” in Student Self-Esteem: A Vital Element of School Success, Vol. 1, ed. Garry R. Walz and Jeanne C. Bleur, p. 49.
  10. Mark R. Leary and Deborah L. Downs, “Interpersonal Functions of the Self-Esteem Motive: The Self-Esteem System as a Sociometer” in Efficacy, Agency, and Self-Esteem, ed. Michael H. Kernis (New York: Plenum Press, 1995), p. 127.
  11. Cited in John Gilmore, The Productive Personality (San Francisco: Albion Publishing Co., 1974), p. 32.
  12. Virginia Satir, The New Peoplemaking (Mountain View, California: Science and Behavior Books, 1988), p. 33.
  13. See Bernard M. Bass, Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications (New York: The Free Press, 1990), p. 154.
  14. Nathaniel Branden, “Self-Esteem in the Information Age”, in The Organization of the Future, eds. Frances Hesselbein, Marshall Goldsmith and Richard Beckhard (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), p. 224.
  15. See Jerry M. Burger, “Need for Control and Self-Esteem: Two Routes to a High Desire for Control” in Efficacy, Agency and Self- Esteem, ed. Michael H. Kernis (New York: Plenum Press, 1995), pp. 219-220.
  16. Cited in Paul E. Spector, “Behavior in Organizations as a Function of Employee’s Locus of Control”, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 91, No. 3, p. 489.
  17. Cited in Joel Brockner, Self-esteem at Work: Research, Theory, and Practice (Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1988), p. 2.
  18. Cited in Paul Yelsma and Julie Yelsma, “Self-Esteem and Social Respect Within the High School”, The Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 138, No. 4, 1998, p. 432. See also Roy F. Baumeister and Dianne M. Tice, “Self-esteem and responses to success and failure: Subsequent performance and intrinsic motivation”, Journal of Personality, Vol. 53, No. 3, September 1985, p. 451.
  19. Garfield, Peak Performers, p. 24.
  20. Cited in Gaetan F. Losier and Robert J. Valleyrand, “The Temporal Relationship Between Perceived Competence and Self- Determined Motivation”, The Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 134, No. 6, p. 793; and Baumeister and Tice, “Self- esteem and responses to success and failure: Subsequent performance and intrinsic motivation”, p.451.
  21. See Todd F. Heatherton and Nalini Ambady, “Self-Esteem, Self-Prediction, and Living Up to Commitments” in Self-Esteem: The Puzzle of Low Self-Regard, ed. Roy F. Baumeister (New York: Plenum Press, 1993), p. 134; and Paul Yelsma and Julie Yelsma, “Self-Esteem and Social Respect Within the High School”, p. 432.
  22. See Leary and Downs, “Interpersonal Functions of the Self-Esteem Motive: The Self-Esteem System as a Sociometer”, p. 127.
  23. See Robert B. Brooks, “Creating a Positive School Climate: Strategies for Fostering Self-Esteem, Motivation, and Resilience” in Educating Minds and Hearts: Social Emotional Learning and the Passage into Adolescence, ed. Jonathan Cohen (New York: Teachers College Press, 1999), p. 63.
  24. Nathaniel Branden, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem (New York: Bantam, 1994), p. 6.
  25. Cited in Joel Brockner and A. J. Blethyn Hulton, “How to Reverse the Vicious Cycle of Low Self-Esteem: The Importance of Attentional Focus”, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 14, 1978, p. 565.
  26. Cited in Tafarodi and Swann “Self-Liking and Self-Competence as Dimensions of Global Self-Esteem: Validation of a Measure”, p. 325.
  27. Heatherton and Ambady, “Self-Esteem, Self-Prediction, and Living Up to Commitments”, p. 134.
  28. Ibid., p. 133.
  29. Cited in Paul Eggen and Don Kauchak, Educational Psychology, 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Merrill, 1999), p. 403.
  30. See Brockner and Hulton, “How to Reverse the Vicious Cycle of Low Self-Esteem: The Importance of Attentional Focus”, p. 565; and Heatherton and Ambady, “Self-Esteem, Self-Prediction, and Living Up to Commitments”, p. 133.
  31. See Purkey, Self-Concept and School Achievement, pp. 25-26.
  32. Cited in Michael H. Kernis, Bruce D. Grannemann and Lynda C. Barclay, “Stability of Self-Esteem: Assessment, Correlates, & Excuse Making”, Journal of Personality, Vol. 60, No. 3, September 1992.
  33. Cited in Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 64.
  34. Garfield, Peak Performers, p. 35.
  35. Nathaniel Branden, Self-Esteem at Work: How Confident People Make Powerful Companies (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998), pp. 26-27.

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