We have a dog-named Mitzi. She is a 5 year old, seventeen-pound, miniature Labradoodle. The other day at the start of our morning walk, she suddenly stopped and looked toward a recently rented house. Her eyes met with those of a much larger dog—perhaps 3 times her size and weight. Neither dog made any aggressive moves toward the other. For at least a minute they just stared at each other.
Then Mitzi, who was up ahead and to the right of me, about 7 feet or so, walked back and around me stopping on my left side, but this time about 7 feet behind me. She then resumed her stare at the other dog. After another minute, Mitzi trotted off, tail waging; a sign of excitement about possible new sights and smells that might lie ahead. As I witnessed this, I wondered, why had Mitzi acted that way? Why had Mitzi positioned herself with me between herself and the other dog? Where did Mitzi’s reaction come from?
According to John Bowlby, creator of Attachment Theory, all species have an instinctual need to seek protection and safety when feeling stressed, anxious, or threatened. In the circumstances that Mitzi faced, two things stand out. First, Mitzi’s chance meeting with the other dog created a sense of heightened anxiety, confusion, and possibly even fear. Those feelings compelled her to seek protection and safety. Placing me between herself and the other dog made her feel safe! The quality of our relationship permitted Mitzi to rely on me as the source of that safety and protection. Second, only after regaining that sense of safety was Mitzi able to resume her exploration of the neighborhood, the sights and smells, and all the people that are delighted to see her. Mitzi was free to engage actively with me, others, and the neighborhood.
Humans are no different. Every single one of us has the capacity to engage actively with others and the environment around us. We engage, not because we have been coerced or forced to do so, not because your boss, manager, or supervisor has the power or authority to demand it, but because we feel safe and protected! John Bowlby said,
“…how we attach early in life is an extremely important aspect of human development…attachment is evident from the cradle to the grave...”
Our attachment patterns, the style we have of relating to others, affect us throughout all phases and all areas (work) of life. These styles determine the quality of our relationships and how well we cope with stress, confusion and anxiety that accompany our working lives.
Further, just like Mitzi felt confident to explore her surroundings, at work, we can feel valued and confident. We can positively connect with others, and we can cooperate and trust each other. Feeling valued and feeling confident empower people to make decisions about their work. Feeling valued and confident generates enthusiasm, which inspires people to try harder. Employees who are excited to be at work are not just there for the paycheck or the next promotion, they care about the organization and work to further its goals—they are actively engaged.
So, positive feelings such as trust and cooperation are really important to engagement. The problem is that the brain is wired to pay more attention to the emotions of confusion, fear, and anxiety first and foremost, before trust and cooperation, and with good reason—our survival depends upon it.
Human beings are roughly 4 million years old. To reach such an age, our senses and our brains have developed is such a way as to alert us to any possible dangers or threats. Without such a system, we would be easy prey or fall victim to the dangers that surrounded us. But, simply being alert to possible danger is not enough. By himself, man could never hope to survive against predators that were bigger, stronger, and faster. We needed trust and cooperation from other humans to ensure our safety and survival. Management theorist Simon Sinek said,
…And when we felt safe amongst our own, the natural reaction was trust and cooperation. There are inherent benefits to this. It means I can fall asleep at night and trust that someone from within my tribe will watch for danger. If we don’t trust each other, if I don’t trust you that means you won’t watch for danger. Bad system of survival.
The modern business environment is exactly the same thing. There are forces out there dedicated to destroying any competitive advantage, steal your clients, or at the very least disrupt your business activity. They are relentless, complex, and will not go away. The only variable, the only conditions that you have control over are inside the organization. There your leadership matters. It’s the leader that sets the tone. Leadership establishes the way the “activity of engagement” will be carried out. More importantly, it establishes the mood of the people involved. But, leadership alone is not enough. Leadership must have the trust and cooperation of everyone else. The entire workforce must be actively engaged, and to do that, the employees must feel protected and safe! Whatever uncertainty, confusion, or fear that existed for Mitzi in that moment, her instinctual need for survival, protection, and safety became the primary motivation for her behavior—at the expense of active engagement.
A principle feature of workplace engagement, I would argue, is the provision of a secure base from which employees are able to accomplish their work, either independently or in groups depending upon the context presented, and to which they are comforted by knowing for sure that when circumstances promote confusion, uncertainty, stress or even fear, help and support is available. For leadership, this role is one of being available, encouraging, and supportive, but to intervene only when clearly necessary (Bowlby, 1969). It’s about relationships.
Today however, many organizations have it backwards.
Note: This post is based, and has been expanded, on a talk given by Simon Sinek that is available on Ted.com. It is also based on a presentation I made at a leadership conference, May 2015, hosted by the Midwest Division of Quest Diagnostics in Denver, CO. Slides and complete citations for the presentation are available upon request.