What’s Driving You? – Exploring Our Need for Dignity, Safety, and Belonging in the Workplace

At an airport recently, I was standing behind a couple of business leaders waiting to board and I could overhear them talking about a new coworker in their office. “He definitely knows what he wants” said one. “He has a big ego, that’s for sure” said the other.

Hearing this, I thought to myself – Does he really have a big ego or is it something else that’s driving his behavior?

Before I started my own personal journey and path of transformation and leadership growth ten years ago, I would have probably agreed with these two business leaders, but now I see it in a much more nuanced way.  Ego is, of course, one dimension of the human experience but after working in a large multi-national corporate setting for many years, I can say that without a doubt, the “acting out” that can occurs in the workplace is not always about ego.  There are other (more fundamental) dimensions of our humanity that may be at play – Our need for dignity, safety, and belonging, that when unmet will produce negative leadership behaviors in the workplace.

Dignity – In the workplace, employees seek to be seen and acknowledged.  There is a need to be respected for their contributions and honored for our expertise.  Having and feeling self-respect is also key.  When a person perceives that their dignity is being impacted, there may be a desire to “prove” or seek acknowledgment in a way that may come across as self-serving.  Taking this one step further, a person may appear egotistical.  When a culture is built in the workplace that acknowledges and honors the dignity of each person, then each person can operate with a greater sense of confidence.  Leadership Reflection – How do you honor the dignity of those that you work with?

Safety – As part of the animal kingdom, human beings come hard-wired to look for and to seek safety.  Therefore, employees are naturally inclined to look for safety in the workplace.  This can come in the form of seeking physical safety (e.g., safe working conditions, a boss that supports you, etc.) as well as economic safety (e.g., a secure job, a living wage, etc.).  In the everchanging organizational culture, signs of “danger” can come with each restructure announcement or introduction of new approaches that disrupt the status quo.  While survival and safety are hard-wired instincts that would have kept our ancestors from being eaten by a bear, in modern times those survival reactions can be out of place and out of proportion with the actual situation.  In the workplace, this can show up a lot of different ways – a person may become combative (fight), leave the situation (flight), shut down/disengage (freeze), or give up/give in (appease).  When a culture is built in the workplace that is physically and economically safe, employees will be open to building trust and showing vulnerability, both of which can be a rocket booster to any organizational strategy.

Leadership Reflection – How do you create safety for your team (both during time of stability and times of complexity/change?

Belonging – Employees want to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves.  In an organization, belonging can have many levels – organizational, departmental, immediate team, etc.  This sense of belonging can drive employee motivation and engagement.  This is reflected in the Gallup engagement survey question about having a “best friend at work”.  Another way of asking this – Do you feel like you belong? When a person does not feel accepted in the workplace, they may appear as a “loner” or they may constantly seek to create relationships even when rejected by others.  When a culture is built in the workplace that creates a sense of belonging, employees are more likely to be productive and to find their work meaningful.

Leadership Reflection – How can you create a sense of belonging for your employees?

I encourage leaders to look at the “why” in a situation not just the “what”. If a direct report is arrogant and unapproachable, don’t get stuck on this behavior. Look deeper. Get curious. Ask yourself…

  • Why are these behaviors here?
  • What life experiences have shaped this person?
  • What filters do they see the world through?
  • Is their sense of dignity, safety, or belonging threatened (real or perceived)?

By exploring the “why” in addition to the “what”, leaders create more space for the whole person to be present in the workplace and it equips you as a manager to address situations more holistically – creating the opportunity for a long-lasting  change in behavior.




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