Gain Managerial Insight into Millennials By Studying the Effects of the Self-Esteem Movement

By Hannah L. Ubl, Lisa X. Walden, Debra Arbit

The self-esteem movement is directly responsible for what many see as some of the more unsavory traits of the Millennial generation, especially the older, leading edge Millennials. That seventh-place ribbon in the jump-rope contest (when there were only seven contestants)? A direct result of the self-esteem movement. Gold stars for a job well-done (or even just mediocre work)? Yup, the self-esteem movement strikes again.

So what was the self-esteem movement exactly? It was a theory pushed forward by psychologist Nathanial Branden, the author of the popular Psychology of Self-Esteem, published in 1969. At its core, the theory suggests that the self-esteem instilled in a child directly translates to success when he or she reaches adulthood.

Accordingly, Branden instructed parents to raise children in a warm, encouraging atmosphere that would bolster the child’s sense of self-worth. He recommended that this style of parenting be light on censure and punishment, and generous in conferring confidence through constant praise and validation. You might start to see where the idea for those participation awards came from.

A runaway success, selling over a million copies, Branden’s book kicked off self-esteem mania in the country. From 1970 to 2000, thousands of articles were devoted to exploring the topic of self-esteem. Millennial kids reached their formative years at a time when the self-esteem movement had reached a fever pitch, and well-intentioned Boomer parents heaped validation, affection, and attention on their growing children.

Results from an Ngram Viewer, a search engine tool that tracks the usage of certain words and phrases over time, illustrate the sizable rise in popularity of the term self-esteem, peaking around the mid ’90s.

Self esteem graph
“Self-esteem.” Google Books Ngram Viewer. (March, 2017).
Self-esteem graph.

To gain an even more nuanced understanding of Millennials, take a closer look at the graph above. You might notice that the popularity of the term “self-esteem” starts dipping after the mid ’90s. While the reasons behind this shift are complex, what’s important to take away is that older Millennials were more heavily subjected to the self-esteem movement efforts than younger Millennials. Older Millennials were also raised by older Boomers, who are generally more optimistic and idealistic than their younger generational counterparts.

The self-esteem movement shifted the way kids were raised — no longer was the parent-child relationship strictly authoritarian; it was more open and even. But this movement didn’t just influence parenting style; it also influenced how children were educated.

Teachers were told to sprinkle in positive feedback on all student work. They opted to focus on rewarding good behavior rather than punishing students when they got out of line. Rather than build in opportunities for competition, educators focused on teamwork, collaboration, and just plain feeling good. Grade inflation was yet another by-product of the efforts to raise student self-esteem. Ultimately, research emerged debunking much of the premise of Branden’s best-selling book. But it was too late: A generation of Millennials — especially the older ones — had already been raised with the guidance of the self-esteem gurus.

Though it certainly had its failings, the self-esteem movement wasn’t all bad. It created a highly collaborative generation that is only too willing to recognize the unique strengths that everyone brings. It helped Millennials embrace diversity. They focus on celebrating not just the best employee or the highest performer, but the team. They recognize that everyone brings something to the table, and everyone’s voice matters. As leaders, Millennials are democratic and value different methods of motivation.