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How unmet needs short-circuit employee performance

Partnering in the workplace means holding out for each other’s highest good: managers and employees connect on the needs that matter most to each other and co-create ways to get those needs met. The problem is we’ve been schooled to suppress our valid human needs – to stuff them down. Here’s what happens when we do.

What do the following behaviours all have in common?

  • Cliquey, exclusive, gossiping, complaining, people-pleasing

  • Micromanaging, controlling, finger-pointing, overly analytical

  • Maverick, rule-breaker, no follow-through, unreliable, takes unwise risks

  • Takes the credit, one-upmanship, has to be right, political & posturing, hyper-competitive

  • Cynical, hyper-critical, sarcastic, dark humor, checked out, jaded

We’ve asked many thousands of participants this question in our work at Juice. The consensus is that these behaviors are toxic, counter-productive, narcissistic, energy-sapping, and signal insecurity.

While we do agree with that consensus, there is something else even more elemental that all these behaviours have in common. Each of these behaviours can be an unskillful expression of an unmet need. Humans have oxygen-like, biologically urgent five driving needs: belonging, security, freedom, significance and meaning.

  • Cliquey-ness and gossiping are unskillful expressions of an unmet need for belonging.

  • The micromanager is not micromanaging because he is so buttoned down and organized – he has a valid driving need for security and cannot afford the risk of things going off the rails.

  • The maverick who takes unwise risks or doesn’t follow through has a valid need for freedom – expressed unskillfully.

  • The person who takes credit for others’ ideas or has to be right has an oxygen-like need for significance.

  • The cynical person has a beautiful ideology, based in their valid need for meaning. When that need for meaning goes unmet, they go sideways – expressing dark sarcastic humour.

This is why an ethos of partnering is vital. Absent this mindset, we see the unskillful behavior and begin to write the person off – we sideline them. But when we act as partners – holding out for each other’s highest good – we ask ourselves, “What’s the unmet need, and how can I help him or her get that need met skillfully?”

Partners go beyond that as well to straightforwardly ask the questions that draw out what matters most to their partner. This marked a crucial pivot in Ziad’s approach.

  • True Story, Part 2 – Ziad’s transformation: Ziad was taking heat from his VP to solve the problem with Paula. He felt his credibility was at risk but, since Part 1 of our story, he’d learned this simple skill: how to do an energy check with employees. He took Paula through the process, which includes connecting on what matters most. He asked her directly, “Paula, what’s most important for you at work?” Her response was immediate. “I want to be seen as a high performer. But every time we meet, you take work off my plate ... I want more challenges at work – not less.”

    Ziad was stunned. Paula’s stress wasn’t from too many challenges but too few, from feeling bored and underutilized. Taking her at face value, Ziad set Paula challenge upon challenge.

    Quickly energized, Paula began knocking it out of the park, delivering great results on every new assignment and responsibility. Ziad’s job as a manager transformed from frustration and defeat to excitement and fulfillment. He was looking like a rock star too.


Unmet needs create a down-spiral of suffering

This true story of Paula and Ziad has a great ending (stay tuned!) But if Ziad had not changed his approach from parenting Paula to partnering with her, the career spiral that followed would have been all too familiar to us:

  1. A person has a valid human need, essential to her well-being.

  2. The need goes undiscussed – stuffed by the employee, the manager or both.

  3. The unfulfilled need produces depletion leading to career-damaging performance.

Psychological needs can’t be tricked. They’re intelligent: they know when they’re being met and they know when they’re not.

  • The first time your driving need goes unmet a twinge of disappointment registers inside you.
  • The second time, there’s a splinter of irritation.
  • The third time, you’re angry, but you stuff it down – you mask it.
  • The fourth time, thoughts of resentment and bitterness begin to brew.
  • The fifth time, you feel exploited – used even.

By this time, the need has tendrils of toxic emotions intertwined with it, and you’re now at a loss to broach the subject. It’s hard enough to talk about your need – doubly hard to talk about your emotions of resentment and feeling used. As the need continues to go unaddressed, learned helplessness sets in and the notion of getting it met becomes impossible.

When workers experience this dynamic, signs of burnout begin to manifest: emotional exhaustion, dark cynicism and incompetence. Not surprising that all this can even lead to physical sickness.

  • Example: A 1985 study of nearly 1,400 participants looked at how people’s tendency to suppress aggression was related to mortality and disease: the researchers predicted that those who tended to suppress aggression would be more likely to develop terminal cancer. When they checked the death records 10 years later, they found they had been right in 78% of the cases. In fact, every single one of the 38 patients who had died of lung cancer had scored high in suppression of aggression.

Stuffing our needs down also short-circuits performance. Unable to concentrate, workers begin exhibiting behaviours that undermine their credibility. They make errors, complain, resist change, protect their turf, leak negativity, engage in unproductive conflict and make it difficult for others to help them. This produces the perfect recipe for sustained burnout: High demands and low resources.


Energy for things that matter

Imagine a different world, a world where people partner so they can be highly productive throughout their day, and have energy left over at the end of their day – energy for their spouse, for their kids, for their community and for their pursuits. This energy comes back to work the next day in all the ways that matter.

It’s a world where people are aware of their psychological needs, break with convention and express those needs in a skillful manner, and partner with others to get them fulfilled in ways that create well-being, vitality and optimal performance.


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Read the other parts in our Partnering Series:

Part 1: Reboot your performance management system with partnering

Part 2: 6 ways we are socialized to stuff down our needs at work

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

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It’s ironic that when leaders aim to “manage” engagement, greater disengagement often results.

Juice’s white paper, The Engagement Paradox, explains why and gives you 7 brain-based leadership principles to shift your strategy for the results you want.