You want to grow your business and you’re pretty clear on what you need from your employees. Hard work. Efficiency. Innovation. Motivation. Results. But what do your employees need from you? If you’re thinking in practical terms—a steady paycheck, a quiet workspace, more training—you’re wrong. Well, at least you’re only partly right. Before they can meet your deepest needs, you have to meet theirs. Safety. Belonging. Mattering.
After our essential needs for food and shelter are met, our next level of needs includes safety, belonging, and mattering. Those are needed before we can seek self-actualization. What that means in a work environment is that people simply can’t perform, innovate, agree, or move forward until those three needs have been met.
Unfortunately, the workplace is filled with situations that make employees feel that they’re not safe, that they don’t belong, and that they don’t matter. Unfair promotion practices, an intolerance for failure, micromanaging leaders, fuzzy communication practices—these are just a few conditions that can send people into the survival-focused fight/flight/freeze part of the brain, creating the Critter State.
To turn things around, you need to get employees into their so-called ‘Smart State,’ where they have full access to their creativity, problem-solving ability, and emotional engagement. You do that by promoting safety, belonging, and mattering.
The greater the feeling of safety (both emotional and physical), the more your people will feel connected (we’re in this together) and the more they’ll feel that they personally matter, make a difference, and are contributing to the greater good. And all of that leads to greater success for your company.
Understand what safety, belonging, and mattering mean. The need for safety, belonging, and mattering isn’t going anywhere. It’s neurological and primal, so you need to understand what those things look like “in action.”
• Safety means creating an environment where your people can take risks, stretch, and grow. Be honest: Is it safe for employees to take risks at your company, or will they face consequences if their efforts fall short?
• Belonging means creating an environment where your team feels like a tight-knit tribe. Everyone is equal and rowing in the same direction to reach the organization’s goals. “It’s an admittedly extreme example, but think about gangs—where people will literally kill to stay in the tribe. That’s how powerful this stuff is.
• Mattering means that each individual contributes in a unique way. Every employee makes a difference, which is appreciated and publicly acknowledged. Does your company culture work this way, or are individuals acknowledged only when they make mistakes?
Determine what your company culture is lacking. As a leader, your job is to identify whether it is safety, belonging, mattering—or a combination of the three—that is most important to your employees.
A little observation and thought will answer the ‘which one’ question. For example, if your team has an us vs. them mentality, they’re craving belonging. If they behave like victims and complain that they aren’t appreciated, they want to know that they matter. And if there’s an undertone of fear to supervisor-employee interactions, they need safety. Once you know which subconscious need is most outstanding, do everything you can to satisfy it.
Influence your team through behaviors. To truly motivate someone, you can’t just tell her what to do—you must make sure she’s emotionally invested and that she has a reason other than “the boss gave me this assignment” to keep forging ahead. The good news is, various cultural behaviors can boost the experience of safety, belonging, and mattering within your company and can help you to give employees this type of from-within fuel.
While the art (and science) of influence is so complex that entire books have been written about it, here are a few tactics that may help you to deliver safety, belonging, mattering through your behavior.
• Create and share an engaging mission, vision, and value set for your organization. This will draw people together for a greater cause, help them see where they’re headed together, and set their “code of conduct” as a tribe.
• Develop individual development plans for each of your people. This will show them how they matter, where they belong within your tribe, and how your company sees them as long-term investments (Job security—we’re safe!).
• Institute cultural rituals like high-fives, shout-outs, public appreciation in newsletters, etc. Even if they feel cheesy at first, these rituals will reinforce mattering and tribal customs (which underscore safety and belonging).
• Operate transparently. This means paying attention to accountability structures, open communication, fairness, etc. In order for your people to feel safe and leave their Critter States, they need to know where the performance “bar” is and how to jump over it.
Influence your team through communication. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that the way you communicate with your people can make them feel safe, included, and appreciated—or not. Don’t underestimate the way you seek information and convey ideas.
Every employee can be happier and more effective if you simply identify whether they crave more safety, belonging, or mattering and help them achieve those states. When you’re successful, your organization will enjoy more innovation, collaboration, engagement, and forward progress!