While there is a lot of literature on the power of positive thinking, not much data is available on how negative or self-defeating thoughts are triggered and the damage they cause.
A recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled "Making Sense of Misfortune: Deservingness, Self-Esteem, and Patterns of Self-Defeat" by Laura A. King, Editor, Mitchell J. Callan , Aaron C. Kay , and Rael J. Dawtry provides some useful insights into this topic. (Read full article here)
Drawing on theorizing and research suggesting that people are motivated to view their world as an orderly and predictable place in which people get what they deserve, the authors proposed that:
(a) Random and uncontrollable bad outcomes will lower self-esteem;
(b) This, in turn, will lead to the adoption of self-defeating beliefs and behaviors.
Experiments were then conducted on sets of people to test their proposals. The findings of the experiments reinforced the hypotheses of the authors.
Four experiments demonstrated that participants who experienced or recalled bad (vs. good) breaks devalued their self-esteem and that decrements in self-esteem (whether arrived at through misfortune or failure experience) increased beliefs about deserving bad outcomes. Five further studies extended these findings by showing that this, in turn, could engender a wide array of self-defeating beliefs and behaviors.
To quote further from the article, these experiments concluded that:
- People who have lower self-esteem might engage in self-defeating behaviors because they feel deserving of bad outcomes, even if those outcomes are brought about by chance and happenstance.
- Participants who experienced/recalled random bad (vs. good) breaks devalued their self-worth, which, in turn, increased their beliefs about deserving bad outcomes.
- In spite of how seemingly irrational such judgments might be, participants reported a random and uncontrollable bad or good break as more or less fair if they received feedback that they failed or succeeded an intelligence test.
- In light of the functional significance of the motive to view one's outcomes as deserved rather than random, the fact that people might be moved to deem their bad breaks as deserved as a function of their self-worth thus became less puzzling.
- Changes in participants' self-worth and perceived deservingness had consequences for how participants (a) wanted others to evaluate their personal worth and attributes, and (b) their self-handicapping behavior ahead of an ability test
- The same processes operated when considering the link between self-esteem and chronic self-handicapping: participants lower in self-esteem reported chronic excuse-making and patterns of behavioral self-handicapping partly because they felt deserving of bad outcomes in life.
- When given the choice to self-reward, self-punish, or do nothing during an intelligence test, participants lower in self-esteem opted to give themselves negative feedback more often than participants higher in self-esteem
Implications of these experiments for organisations, HR professionals and CEOs
While every study and experiment is to be taken with its caveats, it is amply clear that lower self esteem can have a tremendous impact which sets the person (and maybe his team and organisation) on a downward spiral of negative thinking.
We have seen cases where many high-profile CEOs take over an ailing company and their efforts to turnaround come to naught. In most such cases, incoming leaders start work with the assumption that the first thing that needs repair is the company's product and marketing strategy which would help them to regain market share.
Instead, focusing significant energies on rebuilding company morale may be as important. Continued years of losses and drop in market share typically would have eroded the self esteem and confidence levels of employees. As the article shows, these then get so hard coded in the person/ company's DNA that even random failures then begin to be seen as deserving.
Such effects are most visible in external facing functions like sales where the body language of the sales personnel becomes so defensive that it fails to impress the vendors, suppliers and other parties that they deal with.
For HR personnel, these findings can be useful in their efforts to deal with underperformers. Instead of simply following the policy to sack the laggards, it would be useful to understand why self defeating behaviors get triggered. Many times an underperformer is not a case of bad staff selection.
Continued failures or rejections could have led such a person to have poor self esteem resulting in defensive or even defeatist behaviors. Helping them understand their handicapping thought patterns so that ultimately these can be controlled or even overcome would be professionally more satisfying for the HR personnel.