One of Esalen’s most transformational moments occurred one day in 1963 when humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow drove down Highway 1 in Big Sur looking for a place to stay the night and, by chance, came across our young organization.
At the time, Maslow was fermenting some renegade ideas about the human psyche, and he ended up staying on at Esalen to work on his groundbreaking Hierarchy of Needs.
If you’re not familiar with Maslow’s famous pyramid, imagine a triangle separated into five distinct layers with each layer representing a specific human need. At the very base of the triangle are our most basic wants - food, water, shelter - that if not met may mean our very survival. The next level up are our safety and security needs, followed by the need to feel a sense of belonging and connection and a layer above that which encompasses a sense of self esteem, respect and freedom. At the top of the triangle is what Maslow called “self-actualization” - the point at which we realize our full potential and become the best version of ourselves.
Maslow’s theory is that we must address our most basic physiological needs before we can attend to our psychological needs and ultimately achieve a level of self-fulfillment.
We are all capable of advancing in this hierarchy - and in fact are motivated by these needs - but our progress can be hindered when an area is not met. For example when a loss of a job threatens a sense of security or a divorce or break-up endangers a sense of belonging there is less motivation to focus on our self-esteem drivers.
So how is Maslow relevant for your workplace? It means the perceived separation of personal life and work life is just that - a perception - as the events of 2020 have shown that effective managers need to be aware of all aspects of their staff’s well-being in order to ensure the team’s overall success. If a team member’s spouse was recently laid off, chances are high that he or she may be distracted or worse. Here are three ways to support your team’s hierarchy of needs and help your organization meet its full potential:
1. Not Just Bounce Back, Bounce Forward
The journey through Maslow’s hierarchy is not a simple one; likely we will all experience a time when a challenge moves us in a downward direction. When we observe a team member struggling, our goal should be to provide resources to help him or her not just bounce back..but bounce forward. Research over the last 20 years has focused on the ability to grow from a trauma, meaning it’s possible not only to recover but to come back stronger.
2. Vulnerability Is the New Brave
Author Brene Brown has become synonymous with research around vulnerability. “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change,” according to Brown, and what organization wouldn’t want to foster more innovation and creativity while also ensuring teams feel a level of trust to share when they are struggling and in need of support? The first step is to set aside the dated notion that to show vulnerability is a weakness and to ask for help is unprofessional. Managers can help set the tone by modeling healthy ways to be vulnerable at work, and more importantly, respond positively when team members show their vulnerability.
3. Culture Is Community
As of 2020, Millennials now make up half of the global workforce. And with their presence comes an intense focus on the value of community, making the need for belonging in Maslow’s hierarchy even more relevant for workplace managers. If the sense of belonging is weak in your organization, the ability to move your team to higher levels of performance and creativity may be impeded. Be sure to look for ways to build community in your culture, especially when current events place many workers at home.
The hero’s journey, a storytelling narrative popularized by mythologist, noted author and scholar Joseph Campbell, describes the stages a central figure takes in embarking on an adventure, confronting and overcoming a crisis, and ultimately returning home transformed.
Star Wars and Lord of the Rings fans alike will recognize the story; but for managers facing ongoing organizational changes this narrative may also feel familiar.
Whether it’s a new CEO, a new strategic plan, a pivot to a new marketplace or technology or all of the above, change can feel like you are leaving your comfort zone for uncharted territory. How you manage this journey - for yourself and your team - can make the difference between returning home with the treasure or being bested by the enemy. Here are some helpful tools to place in your hero’s pack as you begin, or continue, your journey.
Find the Meaning
More than a decade ago, author Simon Sinek’s TedX talk on how great leaders can inspire action unleashed a mini-movement fueled by a simple, but profound, concept: find the why. Oftentimes managers and organizations start with the what -- “It’s the best product in its class” - or the how - “We implement the highest standards in the industry.” What they overlook is the “why” - why does your product/organization matter? This is the difference between the interchangeable PCs and the fanatic loyalty of Apple customers. One is a transaction; the other is a lifestyle. When facing significant organizational change, look for the why and you will find the greater meaning. This will help be the light when inevitably a conflict or deadline throws a challenge at you or your team.
Change itself is hard enough; when you work in a hostile, competitive or passive-aggressive environment the level of difficulty is only amplified. When people are in an uncivil work environment, they work less efficiently, take more sick days and experience more anxiety. Energy that could fuel innovative and creative thinking is re-routed to office politics and gossip. One antidote is the practice of compassion, as outlined by author and Stanford University lecturer Leah Weiss. When faced with someone you find challenging at work, she recommends the following:
Taking a risk is hard. It naturally brings up feelings of vulnerability, the possibility of rejection and failure, of embarrassment, of conflict. That is why we need emotional courage. If we have the courage to feel all of those emotions, then we will have the courage to act and do things that might bring about those emotions. Try something that scares you every day. It can be very small, like trying new food or walking more slowly. Those are things that, believe it or not, may bring up emotions for you if they are different from what you’re used to. Continue every day to do something that makes you a little nervous and also excited. Then if you have been putting off a difficult conversation at work, go ahead and start it. We build our emotional courage by using our emotional courage.
While change may be inevitable, we have the capacity -- and as leaders, a duty to our team -- to hit the pause button on occasion. When too much change is creating anxiety, or when not enough work has been invested in explaining change, a pause can help prevent fearful thoughts and anxious feelings from taking over. The more recently evolved functions in our brains need a bit of time to come online and counter the faster, older mechanisms. Pausing is the key to returning to the present moment. Simply interrupting fearful thoughts can help change our mindset. This is a big part of human freedom.
Our earliest childhood experiences serve as models for relationships throughout our lives… including our work relationships. And without even realizing it, we can allow these experiences to influence how we relate to colleagues, supervisors and direct reports. Believe it or not, our brains are actually wired to recreate conditions from our past.
Childhood experiences help lay down neural networks that can lead us to later simulate a familiar environment. Even when some past family relationships were strained, we are likely to elicit these same patterns from future relationships.
The good news is we can learn how to make our emotions at work - well, work - by learning new ways of relating with colleagues. This is done by first understanding how our history informs our behavior. As adults, we often act in ways that may have served us as kids but which hurt us today. We may even repeat behavior we witnessed when young such as arguing, whining, or lashing out. We may project characteristics onto a colleague or provoke a team member to act in a way that feels familiar to us. Be aware of these patterns when navigating emotions at work:
There are many unseen elements that draw us to people who remind us of the past. Unfortunately, some can create negative situations such as feelings of being ignored or feeling bullied. From these feelings we then may overreact with behavior we enacted when we were young.
We may interpret behavior of a colleague as being critical or rejecting because they remind us of someone -- perhaps a sibling or parent - from our childhood. To challenge this, we must be aware of ways we read into other’s actions, words, and expressions, projecting the old ways of seeing ourselves onto them.
In addition to selection and distortion patterns, we may provoke a colleague to act in ways that remind us of our past. We don’t do this consciously, but our drive to recreate the emotional climate of our childhood can influence our behavior. If we were ignored as kids, we may have had to pester a parent to get our needs met. As a result, we grew up feeling like a bother. At work, we may still feel like we need to nag to get attention. An old insecurity can lead us to act in ways that provoke others to retreat. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, we engage in behaviors that trigger the same response from others, so we can feel the same bad way we felt as kids. These qualities don’t represent who we really are but projections that were put on us in early life.