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Engaging Learners with Low Self-Esteem

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

We all struggle with confidence at times, but for some people this can be a constant battle. Low self-esteem is defined as a poor perception of one’s own self-worth; essentially, believing you’re just not good enough. Problems with self-esteem can be caused by various factors, often beginning in childhood, and are extremely common – so what issues might this cause with learning in the workplace, and how can we make sure we’re supporting employees effectively?

The impact of low self-esteem on any learner can be enormous, so it’s something not to be overlooked. Research has found learners with low self-esteem are likely to be:

  • Insecure
  • Underachievers
  • Negative in their attitudes
  • Quicker to show anger and hostility
  • Unmotivated
  • Poor communicators
  • Negative about their self-image
  • Unhappy about being held accountable

These factors affect learning in many ways:

  1. Feedback, even when couched in positive terms, may be received negatively
  2. Any learning or training is experienced with high levels of anxiety; the perception is that they will fail at it, perhaps in front of others
  3. Learning is associated with automatic failure. This is likely to be triggered by negative experiences within their own education. Therefore it is resented, seen as irrelevant, unnecessary; factors which provide excuses for anticipated failure
  4. Personal development is seen as irrelevant, even if it influences their promotion prospects or opportunities to take on a new challenge. Low self-esteem often causes an unwillingness to deal with change
  5. Engagement with learning will be more about ticking necessary boxes; they will want it to be over quickly and give it little thought
  6. Accountability is resented because it’s perceived as based on unfair criteria

Engaging team members who have low self-esteem is not always easy, but there are ways to approach the process that can provide even your most reluctant workplace learners with opportunities to improve their knowledge and skills – and they might get a confidence boost too.

Keep it upbeat and relevant

This goes beyond simple praise for getting a question right (overdoing the praise often has a negative effect; it may be seen as demeaning or patronising, and can actually demotivate people). Make courses and other learning opportunities as intrinsically motivating as you can – that is, enjoyable, satisfying and worth doing for their own sake, not just because the boss says you have to!

It’s also important to keep learning materials relevant to the staff member’s day-to-day work to make their value as obvious as possible. Using fictional case studies or examples to anchor learning in a real-life context is a great way to achieve this, and can help your learners get absorbed in the content. If you’re using off-the-shelf courses, it’s a great idea to edit them to add relevant examples too; this helps increase engagement for all learners, but is particularly important for those who may struggle with motivation.

Recognise achievement

People with low self-esteem will often easily give up or lose interest, believing that their own failings mean they will never achieve success. Try these strategies to prevent them falling at the first hurdle:

  1. Keep in regular communication to inform the learner of what they’re doing well. This way, they receive positive reinforcement (not idle praise!)
  2. Develop systems that can offer reminders, not just of deadlines but also reasons for the training. These systems can take the form of regular, brief, informal emails (which most Learning Management Systems, including Nimble LMS, can send for you). Keep messages light and positive
  3. Add low-stakes interactions with helpful feedback to any elearning courses you create, giving your learners the opportunity to find out how they’re doing without being assessed or monitored

Don’t make it look like learning

Elearning offers us a great chance to build something engaging and fun – but all too often, an online course can be tedious (or a poor replica of a session that was once delivered in the classroom). As soon as formality rears its ugly head, it places additional stress on the learner; and nobody likes a boring course! Use images and interactions wisely; take a look at our article about making your elearning visually engaging for more tips. Also consider using video so the learner doesn’t have to rely on a lot of reading (too much text can be a turn-off).

Develop a learning culture

Making learning a priority in your organisation isn’t easy, but it’s critical if you’re going to bring everyone along with you. Learner engagement works best when people feel they belong. And don’t underestimate the importance of company culture in general; if staff are supported and valued – and if they know that making mistakes isn’t failure, but an opportunity to learn – they’re more likely to be happy in their role (take a look at our free Growth Mindset microcourse to find out more). For people with low self-esteem, making a mis-step can feel like the end of the world. It’s even more important for them to be given the room to learn from their mistakes.

Getting buy-in from senior leaders is key to putting learning at the heart of what your organisation stands for. You might want to consider asking someone at the top to provide a short video emphasising this, which you can include in any learning materials. Don’t forget, however, that your biggest assets are the people on the ground. The more feedback and input you can provide for employees, the better; this sense of ownership is likely to increase engagement with learning.

Avoid competition with others

People with low self-esteem already feel they’ve failed. If there’s a chance of being compared to others, then that perception is reinforced. Instead, keep the focus on beating their own past performance and striving for their personal best. Even small improvements can be highly motivating, so provide opportunities for reflection and emphasise just how far they’ve come. Don’t forget to make it clear to your learners exactly how elearning can benefit them as employees, too – whether that’s improving key skills, creating the potential for advancement, or accessing learning opportunities on their own terms.

If you’ve been successful in your own education and enjoy learning for its own sake – which is likely if you’re involved in training – it may be difficult to understand someone who doesn’t feel this way. When you’re hurrying to put together a course, learners’ self-esteem can be at the bottom of your priority list. You might find all kinds of positives if you put it nearer the top!

What strategies have you found most successful for engaging reluctant learners, or team members who struggle with low self-esteem? Let us know in the comments below.


  1. I have used the following strategies and I found them very successful,

    1. Try my hardest not to make look like a training session.
    2. Do not make it as a competition.
    3. praise and recognise achievement, talk about what they achieved without patronising.

    • Great advice, thank you for sharing and we hope you enjoyed the article!