Create a Workplace that Meets Three Powerful Human Needs

by Christine Comaford

HR_0813Employers may be clear on what they need from their employees: hard work, efficiency, innovation, motivation, results. But what do employees need from their employer? To answer in practical terms — a steady paycheck, a quiet workspace, more training — is only partly right. Before they can meet the employer’s deepest needs, the employer must meet theirs.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow said it first in 1943: 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 they’re not safe, they don’t belong and 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 what I call the “Critter State.”

To turn things around, employers need to get employees into their so-called “Smart State,” where they have full access to their creativity, problem-solving ability and emotional engagement. They do that by promoting safety, belonging and mattering.

The greater the feeling of safety (both emotional and physical), the more 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 the company. The following are tips to help create such a workplace:

Understand what safety, belonging and mattering mean. The need for safety, belonging and mattering isn’t going anywhere. It’s neurological and primal, so it’s important to understand what those things look like “in action.”

  • “Safety” means creating an environment where employees can take risks, stretch and grow. Employers need to be honest in assessing their company: Is it safe for employees to take risks at the company, or will they face consequences if their efforts fall short?
  • “Belonging” means creating an environment where a 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. Employers should consider whether their company culture works this way, or whether individuals are acknowledged only when they make mistakes.

Determine what your company culture is lacking. A leader’s job is to identify whether it is safety, belonging, mattering or a combination of the three that is most important to the company’s employees.

A little observation and thought will answer the “which one” question. For example, if a 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 an employer knows which subconscious need is most outstanding, the next step is to do everything possible to satisfy it.

Influence the team through behaviors. To truly motivate someone, a leader can’t just tell her what to do; it’s necessary to make sure she’s emotionally invested and 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 a company and can help its leaders 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, the following tactics may help leaders deliver safety, belonging and mattering through their behavior.
  • Create and share an engaging mission, vision and value set for the 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 the employees. This will show them how they matter, where they belong within the tribe and how the 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 people to feel safe and leave their Critter States, they need to know where the performance “bar” is and how to jump over it.

What I’ve described is the opposite of command and control. To engage and enroll helps people envision an exciting future and invites them to join in creating it. That’s real influence.

Influence the team through communication. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that the way leaders communicate with their people can make them feel safe, included and appreciated — or not. It’s important leaders not underestimate the way they seek information and convey ideas. To help someone feel safe enough to shift out of his Critter State, try using one of these three influencing phrases:

  • “What if …?” Prefacing an idea or suggestion removes ego and reduces emotion. It conveys curiosity rather than forcing a position. This enables the employee to more easily take part in brainstorming instead of feeling that she needs to agree with the boss.
  • “I need your help.” This tactic is called the “dom-sub swap” because when the dominant person uses it, he or she is enrolling the subordinate person to rise up and swap roles. This is an especially effective phrase to encourage a team member to change his behavior or take on more responsibility.
  • “Would it be helpful if …?” When someone is stuck in her Critter State, spinning her wheels or unable to move forward, offering up a solution will help her to see a possible course of action or positive outcome.

Every employee can be happier and more effective if employers simply identify whether they crave more safety, belonging or mattering, and help them achieve those states. When employers do that successfully, their organizations will enjoy more innovation, collaboration, engagement and forward progress.

Christine Comaford, author of recently released SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together, is the bestselling author of Rules for Renegades. A global thought leader who helps mid-sized and Fortune 1000 companies navigate growth and change, and an expert in human behavior and applied neuroscience, she has consulted to the White House (Presidents Clinton and Bush), built and sold five of her own businesses with an average 700-percent return on investment, and helped more than 50 of her clients to exit their businesses for $12–$425 million. 



  1. […] paycheck, a quiet workspace, and more training. Including psychological research, Comaford goes on to explain each of these needs in more depth and why each is so critical to maintaining a healthy culture. She […]

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