Low self-esteem (SE) has long been studied as a determinant of psychological and physiological disorders (Beck 1967; Rosenberg 1965; Scherwitz, Berton and Leventhal 1978). Beginning in the 1980s, organizational researchers have investigated self-esteem’s moderating role in relationships between work stressors and individual outcomes. This reflects researchers’ growing interest in dispositions that seem either to protect or make a person more vulnerable to stressors.
Self-esteem can be defined as “the favorability of individuals’ characteristic self-evaluations” (Brockner 1988). Brockner (1983, 1988) has advanced the hypothesis that persons with low SE (low SEs) are generally more susceptible to environmental events than are high SEs. Brockner (1988) reviewed extensive evidence that this “plasticity hypothesis” explains a number of organizational processes. The most prominent research into this hypothesis has tested self-esteem’s moderating role in the relationship between role stressors (role conflict and role ambiguity) and health and affect. Role conflict (disagreement among one’s received roles) and role ambiguity (lack of clarity concerning the content of one’s role) are generated largely by events that are external to the individual, and therefore, according to the plasticity hypothesis, high SEs would be less vulnerable to them.
In a study of 206 nurses in a large southwestern US hospital, Mossholder, Bedeian and Armenakis (1981) found that self-reports of role ambiguity were negatively related to job satisfaction for low SEs but not for high SEs. Pierce et al. (1993) used an organization-based measure of self-esteem to test the plasticity hypothesis on 186 workers in a US utility company. Role ambiguity and role conflict were negatively related to satisfaction only among low SEs. Similar interactions with organization-based self-esteem were found for role overload, environmental support and supervisory support.
In the studies reviewed above, self-esteem was viewed as a proxy (or alternative measure) for self-appraisals of competence on the job. Ganster and Schaubroeck (1991a) speculated that the moderating role of self-esteem on role stressors’ effects was instead caused by low SEs’ lack of confidence in influencing their social environment, the result being weaker attempts at coping with these stressors. In a study of 157 US fire-fighters, they found that role conflict was positively related to somatic health complaints only among low SEs. There was no such interaction with role ambiguity.
In a separate analysis of the data on nurses’ reported in their earlier study (Mossholder, Bedeian and Armenakis 1981), these authors (1982) found that peer group interaction had a significantly more negative relationship to self-reported tension among low SEs than among high SEs. Likewise, low SEs reporting high peer-group interaction were less likely to wish to leave the organization than were high SEs reporting high peer-group interaction.
Several measures of self-esteem exist in the literature. Possibly the most often used of these is the ten-item instrument developed by Rosenberg (1965). This instrument was used in the Ganster and Schaubroeck (1991a) study. Mossholder and his colleagues (1981, 1982) used the self-confidence scale from Gough and Heilbrun’s (1965) Adjective Check List. The organization-based measure of self-esteem used by Pierce et al. (1993) was a ten-item instrument developed by Pierce et al. (1989).
The research findings suggest that health reports and satisfaction among low SEs can be improved either by reducing their role stressors or increasing their self-esteem. The organization development intervention of role clarification (dyadic supervisor-subordinate exchanges directed at clarifying the subordinate’s role and reconciling incompatible expectations), when combined with responsibility charting (clarifying and negotiating the roles of different departments), proved successful in a randomized field experiment at reducing role conflict and role ambiguity (Schaubroeck et al. 1993). It seems unlikely, however, that many organizations will be able and willing to undertake this rather extensive practice unless role stress is seen as particularly acute.
Brockner (1988) suggested a number of ways organizations can enhance employee self-esteem. Supervision practices are a major area in which organizations can improve. Performance appraisal feedback which focuses on behaviours rather than on traits, providing descriptive information with evaluative summations, and participatively developing plans for continuous improvement, is likely to have fewer adverse effects on employee self-esteem, and it may even enhance the self-esteem of some workers as they discover ways to improve their performance. Positive reinforcement of effective performance events is also critical. Training approaches such as mastery modelling (Wood and Bandura 1989) also ensure that positive efficacy perceptions are developed for each new task; these perceptions are the basis of organization-based self-esteem.