Vital Instincts


By Judith E. Glaser | Leadership Excellence
Published April 2004

Crack the code on culture change.

We spend more time at work than in any other activity. When we join an organization, we enter a new community with expectations to make a difference, to contribute, and to be part of something greater and bigger than we can accomplish on our own. Every person has instincts for greatness. We instinctually want to do well, to contribute, and to be included on the winning team. No one needs to teach us these desires.

Yet many organizations often become harvesters of politics, power, control, arrogance, and egos that fill organizations with invisible street signs that say, “don’t go there,” “you can’t do this,” “you don’t know that,” “save face,” “blame,” and “protect.”

Allowing ourselves to get sucked into territoriality or reactivity can lead to cycles of behavior that erode relationships and take energy away from being productive, healthy, high-performing individuals, teams, and organizations. When we are stuck in territoriality, protecting what we have and fearing loss, we are living at a low level of effectiveness, which ensures we will never achieve our greatest aspirations.

In the face of negativity, positional power struggles, and self-limiting beliefs, our courage and ambition shrivel up. Companies lose their spirit, and mediocrity becomes a way of life. Often, the pattern becomes a death spiral, as we put out the flame needed to thrive. Cracking the code on culture change is easier than most of us think.

Old vs. New Approach

Traditional strategies for culture change come from different disciplines and consulting experience built on a set of beliefs that I want to demystify.

In the old paradigm of thinking, culture change:

  • Takes years, if not decades, to do.
  • Provokes tremendous fear.
  • Incites tremendous resistance.
  • Requires changing large systems.
  • Requires redesigning processes.

I propose a new approach to culture change. In this approach, I suggest that we all have Vital Instincts that are hard wired into our DNA (like survival skills) and provide us with the codes for how to live healthy, deeply connective, and loving lives with each other.

Vital Instincts give us the intuitive awareness and wisdom to know how to bring together people to form communities, to support each other, and to thrive in the face of challenges. Since the beginning of human history, people have created communities of individuals who traveled to find food, build homes, and create communal life.

Vital Instincts is the foundation upon which we build our essential wisdom for transforming cultures riddled with politics, power, and dysfunction back into healthy cultures. The secrets are transferable and when practiced have extraordinary power to restore health and growth to individuals and teams.

The presence of Vital Instincts makes culture change—a topic that has been a mystery—into a science of everyday practice. The Vital Instincts approach is based on discoveries emerging from cancer research at the NYU School of Medicine, where scientists are developing a new technology for curing cancer. Their approach restores natural functioning to cancer cells. By injecting a simple peptide into cancer cells grown in culture, this miraculous peptide reinstructs the cells at the DNA level to act again as healthy cells.

Three Basic Principles

Cancer is an unhealthy state. Cancer depletes life energy from a system. The secret to reinstructing a cancer cell to become a healthy cell again is driven by three basic principles. These principles also apply to changing toxic cultures and relationships back to healthy ones. These simple principles break the code on culture change.

Principle 1: Create a feedback-rich culture. When cancer grows, the cells lose their sensitivity to each other and grow anywhere they can.They invade the body and grow into tumors that can block the normal functioning of organs and the body’s systems designed to sustain health. This principle reminds us of the importance of restoring cell sensitivity and instructs us how.

Translated into business terms, this means creating a feedback-rich culture that enables individuals to establish healthy relationships with their neighbors and coworkers. In a feedback-rich culture, a new level of awareness emerges so that we “don’t grow all over each other.” Rather than creating environments full of territorialism and competition, we learn how to build robust environments full of incredible support, synergies, and expansive possibilities.

Principle 2: Make beliefs transparent. When the body is healthy, the immune system works at all times to ensure that anything that is a threat to health is attacked immediately. Immune system “flags” arise from cells, directing the immune system to know where and how to target their action and to marshal the internal resources to restore health. When cancer forms, normal cells lose these system “flags.” Without them, cancer takes over the body. This principle reminds us of the importance of the immune system “flags” to health and instructs us how to keep the “flags” visible by making our belief systems transparent to each other.

In business, we need to learn how to make our beliefs visible to each other, to become more transparent about what is on our minds, and to audit our mindsets so that we are always operating out of our healthiest beliefs. In a culture where beliefs are transparent, we can collectively monitor the health of our culture, our organization, our teams, and our relationships. With this awareness in place, we can better recognize and reject belief systems that have a negative impact on our ability to create robust environments full of incredible support, synergies, and expansive possibilities.

Principle 3: Focus Outward on Harvesting Growth and Prosperity. Cancer cells multiply by creating their own growth factors. They build their own vascular system (angiogenesis) that supplies oxygen and nutrients to the cancer cells, enabling them to grow at a rapid rate. They become self-sustaining and encapsulated from the rest of the system, drawing out nutrients from inside the system for their own sustenance. Healthy cells, on the other hand, need nutrients from the outside. Since they are serum dependent, they need nourishment from outside to grow. They need to engage with each other for health.

In business terms, this means that we need to be mindful when we are creating an internal view of the world that separates us from others. We can grow this internal view by sapping the nutrients out of the system. Instead, to become healthy, we need to turn outside to others for support, engagement, and nutrition. In a healthy culture, we see people engaged with each other building strong partnerships, collaborating, and synergizing with each other to grow to their next level.

To create a healthy culture, we need to recognize the nutrients we need from each other and to provide them so that we don’t retreat back into ourselves and become self-serving or I-centric. When we become aware of the key nutrients for growth, we are more equipped to release these nutrients into our culture and thrive on them. When we do this, we build robust, we-centric environments full of incredible support, synergies, and expansive possibilities.

Recognizing our Vital Instincts is the first step in understanding how to create positive, healthy environments for growth and generativity. When we master these three principles, we ward off the toxicity that limits life and health. These Vital Instincts principles remind us of the life-giving wisdom we all know at the instinctual level.

ACTION: Apply these three principles.

Meeting People’s Needs

By Judith E. Glaser and Charles Jones | Leadership Excellence
Published March 2008

You can create a needs-intelligent workplace.

Remember when employees were content to get a paycheck, a promise of lifelong employment, and “employee of the month” kudos in exchange for doing a good job?

Well, those days are gone! In today’s knowledge-worker-centric workplace, employees expect to work for a company they feel proud of, be involved in work that makes full use of their gifts and talents, have a say in the decisions that shape their job, enjoy opportunities to learn and grow, be respected for their expertise, and be appreciated for their contributions.

Like customers, employees have become more demanding. They expect their psychological needs to be met. Fail to meet their need of appreciation, and employees will check out from the community, as evidenced by diminishing discretionary effort, withholding opinions and ideas, and forming groups that whine and complain.

When an employee begins to check out, managers often begin to think of this person as uncooperative or unreasonable, which leads to counter-productive behaviors on part of the manager—such as avoiding the person, talking judgmentally about them, or passing them over to HR for repair.

This creates a vicious cycle: employee engagement continues to decline while the manager becomes exasperated with the employee’s performance until the tension is relieved—either by the boss deciding to fire the employee, the employee choosing to leave, or both resigning themselves to low satisfaction and performance.

We suggest interpreting negative behaviors as indications that the psychological needs that drive performance are not being met. All people have deep-seated needs for meaning, purpose, connection, and inclusion that they want—and expect—to fulfill at work. Yet leaders tend to be uncomfortable with the topic of “needs.” Needs connote a deficit, and, the word needs is often confused with the word needy, connoting excessive wants and needs. Leaders who don’t know how to have conversations about needs, often think that meeting needs means: “It will take too much of my time to meet your need—time that could be invested in getting business results.

In this context, an employee’s need for inclusion, appreciation, or meaning shows up as an interruption or impediment to achieving goals, and the idea of supporting employees in meeting their psychological needs shows up as pandering to weakness and engendering co-dependency. And yet, employees whose bosses fail to attend to their psychological needs tend to leave or disengage, while employees whose bosses encourage them to openly express their needs and support them in finding ways to meet those needs tend to be loyal and productive.

How do you create a culture where people express their psychological needs and are supported in finding ways to meet them without falling into a bottomless pit of emotionalism and psychological dependency? And, how do you leverage your employee’s psychological needs to fuel the growth and performance of your business?

Take Five Steps

We define “needs-intelligence” as the capacity to recognize the psychological needs of self and others and then to translate this awareness into actions that meet these needs. In a needs-intelligent workplace, people are encouraged to honor their own psychological needs and feel supported in finding ways to meet these needs. Creating a needs-intelligent culture will pay big dividends in higher morale, retention and productivity. Here are five steps you can take now:

1. Acknowledge the importance of people’s psychological needs. Our needs are our energy, our source of motivation and engagement. Acknowledging psychological needs in yourself and others creates a culture where people feel comfortable expressing their needs and taking action to meet them. To acknowledge needs, you must first recognize them. We have identified seven needs which, when met, lead to high engagement and satisfaction and when not met, lead to low productivity and retention: 1) inclusion and belonging: we need to feel included and connected and in a healthy supportive relationship with others and be included in the flow of information and decisions that affect our job; 2) appreciation and recognition: we need to be appreciated for our gifts, talents, and achievements and to feel comfortable recognizing and appreciating others; 3) challenge and achievement: we need to feel challenged by our work and have opportunities for achievement; 4) trust and accountability: we need to feel that we can count on others to be fair and honest, know what is expected of us, and be held accountable for our results; 5) growth and learning: we need to work in places where we can learn, grow and develop our skills and talents and contribute to our organization’s goals; 6) power and control: we need to have influence, and have a say in the results and actions we are accountable for; and 7) meaning and purpose: we need to know that our work adds value, has meaning, and is part of something bigger than we are alone.

2. Model self-responsibility for meeting needs. As a leader, you can foster a culture of self-responsibility by expressing direct and timely feedback to others when their behavior detracts from your needs being met and by making clear requests regarding actions you’d like them to take to better meet your needs. Also, you can encourage others to take more responsibility for meeting their needs by asking them for feedback on whether your behavior is meeting their needs and, if not, what needs are not being met and what actions they’d like you to take to better meet these needs.

3. Offer and accept support for identifying and meeting your needs.We often need help identifying what our needs are and the support of others to meet them. As a leader, you can foster an environment in which people support each other in identifying and meeting their needs by offering support (asking someone who appears distressed to say what’s up for him or her) and accepting support when it is offered.

4. Celebrate when needs are met. Nothing validates the importance of needs and builds momentum for continuing to meet these needs than celebrating the actions that lead to these needs being met. Celebrate the meeting of a need, and you can expect this need to become increasingly met going forward; fail to celebrate the meeting of a need that is near and dear to someone’s heart, and you can expect this person to become demoralized.

5. Hire needs-intelligent employees. People’s capacity to identify and meet their psychological needs is largely a function of their experience and upbringing. Some employees may arrive to work intent on creating a sense of inclusion and belonging, while others may arrive resigned that they’ll never feel included. As a leader, you should identify those needs you would like more support for in your culture and then hire people who have a strong connection to these needs and embody a sense of self-responsibility for ensuring that these needs are met.

Reap the Benefits

You can’t ask people to leave their needs at the door while expecting them to passionately engage in their work. You can either deal with people’s needs directly, respectfully, and effectively in support of their performing at their best, or ignore (or discount) their needs and deal with negative behavior and disengagement.

As managers and leaders, we are in a unique position to model what it means to be responsible for meeting our own needs while acknowledging that our psychological fulfillment is interdependent with others. When we create an environment in which people’s needs are acknowledged and supported, people feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, needs, and ideas, and become emotionally connected to the organization and to each other. Emotional connection is the strongest link to sustaining long-term relationships and shared commitments to success, and one of the biggest contributors to performance and retention.

The more people’s psychological needs are met, the more passionate they become about meeting the needs of their customers.

ACTION: Create a needs-intelligent workplace.