6 ways we are socialized to stuff down our needs at work

Partnering in the workplace means holding out for each other’s highest good. Partners seek to connect on the needs that matter most and co-create ways to get those needs met. Unfortunately we’ve been socialized to suppress our needs at work. Here are six ways this occurs:

1. As children, we internalize the message that our needs are undesirable, inappropriate, or a burden to others

Many of us get imprinted early with the belief “your needs are undesirable.” Dr. Gabor Maté is a physician and renowned expert in how our formative relationships can cause us to repress our valid needs – and how these stifled needs can make us ill. In his 2003 book When the Body Says No, he proposes the following type of scenario as emblematic of many children’s experiences:

Barb grew up with a raging mother and she cannot bear anyone expressing anger around her. Her two-year-old daughter MacKenzie is asking for another snack – just before dinnertime. Barb says “no” and MacKenzie flies into a tantrum. When Barb finally subdues MacKenzie’s tantrum, she brings the full force of her being to deliver a powerful lesson: “You listen to Mommy. Good little girls don’t get angry.”

Such experiences teach us our needs are undesirable to those who love us. If we want love and acceptance, we must stifle our anger and other negative emotions, masking our true needs. When you consider the maze of relational complexity, plus how much grit, risk and ingenuity is required to get needs met, it’s easy to see how we’re socialized toward stifling.

2. Learned helplessness sets in

When MacKenzie’s repeated attempts to get her needs met are unsuccessful, learned helplessness becomes a way of being. This poignant phrase was the upshot of Dr. Martin Seligman’s (famous but cruel) dog-shock experiments of the 1960s.

Imagine three groups of dogs in cages A, B and C. Dogs in all three cages are strapped into a harness. Dogs in cage A are confined for a while then released. Dogs in cage B are confined and administered a light electrical shock but can stop the shock at any time by pressing a panel with their noses. Dogs in cage C are confined and administered light electrical shocks and are given no way to escape them.

Then all three groups of dogs are put into cages that are divided by a low barrier – easy for them to jump over if they choose. On one side of the cage, the floor is electrified – the other is shock-free.

When the dogs from cage A feel the shock, they quickly take the option of jumping over the barrier to the shock-free side of the cage. Cage B dogs do the exact same thing.

Cage C dogs experience the shocks, lie down, whine, defecate and continue to endure the pain.

The dogs who had previously learned that they could not stop the shock in the first experiment, did not even attempt to do so in the second.

Seligman named this condition learned helplessness – a condition that can also apply to children who endure unmet needs for affection, security or attachment and learn that nothing they do will get those needs met.

Children imprinted with learned helplessness have been socialized to stuff down their needs and experience life’s shocks in silent resignation. Kids that are taught that needs don’t matter will carry that expectation with them to school.

3. We get imprinted with a fixed mindset at school

As babies learn to walk and talk, they are unfettered by the fear of failure. They eagerly experiment, fail, learn and succeed. But there’s neural wiring that begins to impair those impulses: a fixed mindset. What triggers it? Dr. Carol Dweck’s research of more than 20 years reveals that our education system is highly biased toward praising children for their abilities. This encodes them with a fixed mindset. When praised for their effort, they are encoded with a growth mindset. Here are the telltale signs of each:

Consider the complexity of organizational life. Relationships can be tricky – requiring grit, risk and ingenuity. It’s easy to see how the traits of a fixed mindset socialize us toward stuffing down our needs.

4. Our workplaces often breed a view that need = weakness

The research of Brené Brown backs up Dr. Gabor Maté, revealing that society has imprinted us with a terror of showing vulnerability. In short, admit your needs and you jeopardize your career growth and social standing.

Vulnerability is not our default mode. Social media tells us that our friends are perfect – and we should be too. Admitting our needs to coworkers feels like an unwise risk. It’s safer and more comfortable to be known as the solution provider, the get-it-done hero, one who gives support rather than needing it. In an atmosphere of competitive colleagues with high tolerances for ambiguity and change, stifling feels like the smarter option than admitting some fluffy need for clarity or structure.

5. Our leaders are fixated on what we do and how we do it – rather than why.

In a fast-flying, complicated world, managers become hyper-focused on output – not the conditions that create it. It’s just assumed that employees have what they need to sustain their motivation and fuel their performance. For many managers, that emotional stuff is difficult to divine and less interesting than what people are achieving and how they achieve it.

Imagine starting a conversation with a boss who’s in a performance trance and who twitches when talking about inner needs. This will always lead to a simple choice: stifle the need, soldier on, muscle through.

6. Our HR leaders focus us on strengths and preferences at the expense of our needs

Mind you, it’s easy to see why our HR leaders focus us on strengths and preferences at the expense of our needs. Strength-based leadership and positive psychology have done much to shift us from a pathology-mindset (digging away to detect what’s wrong with someone) to a much more hopeful and helpful stance.

Which is a good thing. But the real issue? Our needs were never what was wrong with us. And our pendulum-swing preoccupation with strengths has created an unintelligent implication: we stifle our needs and, instead, obsess about what makes us strong and special.

We at Juice Inc. thoroughly support a strengths-based approach. Why? Strengths are how we meet our needs. For example, the organizer strength helps a person get his need for security met. The adaptability strength helps get the need for freedom met.

Preferences also are important. If you’ve been in the workplace for more than five years, you’ve probably had as many personality assessments. Each one provides epiphanies about your preferences. Perhaps you’re more energized working by yourself than with others. Knowing that can inform your behaviour: “too much group-work drains my energy, so I will carve out quiet space and time to work on my own.”

The reason it’s important to understand your preferences is that you need to flex them to help others get their needs met. For example, you flex your preference of being conscientious to work with someone who is influential – so you can help her get her needs for belonging met.

But the driving needs we’re discussing here are deeper than preferences. Unfulfilled, they cause biological panic and ill-being. In that way, they feel urgent and pressing in ways that preferences never could. Essentially, we have confused ends and means. Strengths and preferences are means to an end: meeting the driving needs. A strength or preference is never an end in itself. It’s the fulfilled need that matters most. Why? It’s the fulfilled need, not the strength, that releases vitality and optimal performance.

Partnering is the cure

We’ve been socialized to stuff our needs from cradle to cubicle and it is easy to succumb to learned helplessness. Small wonder we ignore – even despise – our needs in the workplace. It is difficult to block out the authoritative inner voices that say, “Don’t talk about your needs…”:

  • “They are undesirable.”
  • “It’s useless to try.”
  • “If you’re not one of the talented ones – you won’t get your needs met.”
  • “You’ll be seen as weak and needy.”
  • “Your boss cares about what you accomplish, not what you need to accomplish it.”
  • “Focus on your strengths – not your needs.”

Remember Paula, from our introduction to partnering for performance? You can see how ignoring needs drives people like Paula to burnout. They keep putting their hand up to take on more work and mask their valid needs. In doing so, they sacrifice their health, their marriages, their relationships with their kids and their friendships.

Imagine it differently. Yes, stuffing is endemic, but partnering is the cure. It’s easier to talk about your needs when you’re confident someone is holding out for your highest good.


Read the other parts in our Partnering Series:

Part 1: Reboot your performance management system with partnering

Part 3: How unmet needs short-circuit employee performance

Part 4: Stop parenting, start partnering to fuel workplace performance


For more on why we suppress our needs at work, killing motivation and causing career-damaging behaviour, get our Stuffering White Paper: