Ten years ago I was sitting in a business lobby, waiting for a client, when flowers were delivered to the front desk. It was a large, colorful and fragrant bouquet in a clear glass vase with a red ribbon. The delivery person told the receptionist who they were for and headed back out to his truck. The receptionist smiled and paged the recipient to the front desk.
Minutes later, a woman hesitantly approached the desk. I assumed, based on her apparel, she worked on the shop floor. She looked concerned, even confused about why she was being paged. The receptionist pointed to the vase of flowers and the woman started to cry. She took the card from the little plastic holder and read it. As it turns out, her children had sent her flowers for her birthday. She had never received flowers at work before; in fact, she said she had never received flowers from anyone before. She kept repeating that she didn't do anything to deserve flowers, that now she'd have to do something for her children to repay them, and she didn't have the money to do that.
I stood and walked to the desk, reached out to her, and said, "Everyone deserves flowers. In fact, everyone deserves flowers without needing any reason at all. And your kids did this because they love you, not because they want something back from you. You do not need to do anything to pay them back. Just say thank you." She looked away, visibly upset. She did not feel worthy of flowers.
Weeks later I was walking the shop floor with the production manager. There was a Kaizen team working on an area of the shop, so we stopped to see them. The woman who received the flowers, Nancy, was on the team. The manager and I watched for a bit as the team worked through a problem. They were standing around a table, looking at some data, trying to decide their next step. Nancy stood off to the side, alone. The manager commented that Nancy had difficulty adapting to change. They thought if she was on the team she would handle it better.
Curious, I walked up to Nancy and asked her what she thought of the team's work. She looked around to see if I was actually talking to her. She struggled to make eye contact with me. Nancy said they'd made some changes, some good ones, some not so good -- but whatever. I asked her which changes weren't so good; she said it didn't matter, that she had no opinion. The team had moved on without her. It was a clumsey, difficult, and short conversation.
What if an employee is troublesome because they lack self-worth?
In part 1, I introduced you to Jerry. Jerry didn't lack self-worth; he needed someone to meet him where he was, to listen, to connect and to build trust.
Nancy was a troublesome employee for a different reason. She struggled with worthiness.
For some people, embracing the idea that they are good enough is the same as being arrogant -- and they believe being arrogant is bad. Rather than take pride in their contributions, a person with low self-worth dismisses them, and themselves, as nothing. Introducing change is introducing risk. Risk implies a move outside the comfort zone. Risk brings the possibility of failure or disappointment -- or something bad happening. Change becomes terrifying and more proof you are not enough.
After my chat with Nancy, I asked the production manager to tell me more about her. He described a situation where Nancy needed to make a change in her work process. Her supervisor talked to her directly, walked her through the change, and explained the reasons. Nancy cried. She apologized for not knowing the change was needed. She asked him not to fire her. The supervisor reassured her, gave her time to regain composure, and walked with her back to the floor. Days later, Nancy was not doing the new way. He asked why. She shrugged her shoulders and looked away. He asked her to make the change, and she nodded. But she didn't make the change. She never did. He gave up and moved her to a different role.
As a leader, you can help an employee who struggles with low self-worth. How?
Say and do things that demonstrate the employee's value to you.
It can be simple -- like making a point of looking the employee in the eye when you say good morning. Or thanking him for a job well done. I have a friend who beings every presentation she gives with the words, "You are worthwhile." Try saying, "I'm glad you are here" rather than "thanks for coming in today." Don't let the employee's birthday or work anniversary pass without acknowledgment. Ask her what she thinks -- but don't let her off without an answer. Be patient and listen actively. Take an interest in her life. If the employee takes a risk, even if the end result is failure, praise her for taking the risk. Basically, build trust. Trust will help the employee feel more safe. It will still be uncomfortable when change is introduced, but you'll have a good foundation to work from. It will also serve you when you need to give the employee feedback. If an employee trusts you, they may be more able to take in the positive, rather than focus on the negative.
Do not expect a change overnight.
Self-worth is tricky because it's something that you have to claim for yourself. It will take time, consistency, and perseverance -- and you may still not see a change. We didn't with Nancy. Still makes me sad to think about it. (Everyone deserves flowers!)