What People Really Need From Leaders: Building a Culture of Trust, Respect, and Engagement

By Kevin Ciccotti, CPCC, PCCAs leaders, it’s our job to create an environment where our people can flourish, produce their best work, and gain a sense of pride and fulfillment from their work. And let’s face it, doing that is not always easy. Many times in our efforts to do that, we miss the mark and end up wondering how to get our people on the same page.

The fact is that there is a neurological and biological life to your organization; it’s a living, breathing organism. And most of us go through the day completely unaware of it. Do you have an environment where people can thrive, or do they come to work every day just hoping to survive? I can tell you I’ve worked in both of those types of environments and I know which I prefer!

Now certainly we know there are a lot of different things that go into creating a great culture. And your people have many needs to be met. But here’s the thing – there are a few key strategies that if you simply start here, you’re going to build a foundation that will set you apart from the rest.

The first thing we need to do is recognize what’s already happening. Two thirds of the workforce in North America is either disengaged or actively disengaged – and according to Gallup those numbers haven’t changed substantially in more than four decades! When asked why, the number one reason given is “I don’t feel appreciated, I don’t feel like my contributions matter.” Basically, when people leave companies, they don’t quit their job; they quit their bosses. So if we want to succeed and create sustainable organizations, we have to move the needle on those numbers. But the good news is that it can be done, and it’s not rocket science.

Our goal should be to create organizations that operate the way we’re designed to operate. When we do that, we increase the feelings of trust, and allow people to focus on the task at hand rather than always looking over their shoulders, wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. So the question becomes, “How do we do that?”

There are three specific areas of human needs that if you were to begin making improvements in these areas, they could catapult your organization to new heights. They are Certainty, Significance, and Connection & Belonging. Let’s talk about them and look at examples of the effective use of each.

The first is CERTAINTY. It’s a basic need of all people. We need to feel safe and secure in our environment, have a sense of predictability, and feel comfortable in our relationships.

Our brains are actually “certainty-seeking machines.” The brain craves certainty. It looks for patterns and attempts to predict what will happen next. It makes those predictions by combining what it has seen before and what is happening now. We like the status quo, the comfort zone – even when it isn’t comfortable!

In the workplace, think about what happens when there is a high level of uncertainty. People grasp at answers, seeking information, asking questions about what’s coming. And, when those answers don’t seem to be forthcoming, we make up stories – we decide what it means in our own heads.

And there is a biological impact to uncertainty. Too much uncertainty releases cortisol in the body. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, which produces feelings of stress, anxiety, and even paranoia. And it’s all driven by our thoughts in the moment. The problem is that our thoughts about what’s happening don’t even need to be true. We just need to feel certain that they’re true!

Think about what happens when people come in to work every day and their first thought is, “I wonder if this is my last day,” or “I wonder what the boss is going to be like today.”

Here’s a question: in your organization, do people believe that if they take a risk and fail they’ll lose their job? Talk about a great way to kill creativity and innovation in any company!

The impact of that level of uncertainty, especially when it becomes chronic, is devastating. It impacts health – not only the health of the organization, but also the actual physical and emotional health of the people who work there. We all know companies like that.

In his book, “Leaders Eat Last,” author Simon Sinek speaks about what he calls the circle of safety. Within an organization, there can be real or perceived threats, and they have power. For example, the practice of layoffs following a bad quarter or year. There’s politics, power struggles, intimidation, rejection.

When people don’t feel safe in their organization, they will spend all of their efforts and energy trying to protect themselves from each other. For more about trust, read “Trust is the Key to High Performing Organizational Cultures.”

The second area of focus is SIGNIFICANCE. Every person needs to feel important, needed and wanted, special, and worthy of attention. Significance comes primarily from comparing ourselves to others, and we question our own superiority or inferiority. And the drive to achieve and maintain status is a major driver of social behavior – so much so that an increase in status can be more rewarding than money, and a decrease in status can feel like your life is in danger.

The drive for significance can be tied to some of our most incredible achievements, and some of our worst atrocities.

I wrote earlier about the low levels of employee engagement, and the top reason people feel disengaged is that they don’t feel appreciated. This strikes right at the heart of significance. Listen, in today’s more evolved world, people are seeking more than just a paycheck. We work to contribute – to ourselves, our families, our communities. And, when we don’t feel that our work has purpose and meaning, we disengage.

When we are praised or acknowledged for our efforts, we actually get a boost of the neurochemical serotonin. This boosts our feelings of pride and confidence, and in fact can even strengthen our social bonds and incentivize us to work together and build feelings of trust and loyalty. What gets rewarded gets repeated.

How hard is it to tell someone you value their contribution? How tough is it to say thanks for a job well done? Well, if you simply look at the way we’re doing business today, it would seem a monumental task! But the numbers don’t lie. When people are made to feel special, acknowledged for their contributions, and celebrated for their successes, their level of engagement increases exponentially! And the best part is that it doesn’t cost a thing – only a small amount of time, paying attention to what’s happening around you, and of course a dose of authenticity.

Tom Peters said it best, “We wildly underestimate the power of the tiniest personal touch.” For more about appreciation, read “The 5 Languages of Appreciation — what’s yours?”

The third area of focus is CONNECTION/BELONGING – We need to experience the feeling of connection – a sense of belonging – with others. Everyone needs to feel connection with other human beings, and everyone strives for relationships that give them a sense of belonging.

The need for connection and belonging is powerful. In fact, it’s so powerful that it is considered a survival need. The feeling of loneliness and isolation can be devastating. Recent studies on the brain have shown that the feeling of loneliness or of being separate actually triggers the exact same part of the brain that is activated by physical pain, which drives home the fact that connection is an essential element to a happy life.

In the absence of connection and belonging, we suffer and may even live in chronic emotional pain.

When the need for belonging is met, when there is a well-defined circle of safety, then the neurochemical oxytocin is produced. It produces feelings of friendship, love, or deep trust; like what we experience when we’re with our closest friends or most trusted colleagues. And without it, there would be no empathy.

One of the best things about oxytocin is that we can even get a boost of it by merely seeing someone else perform an act of kindness for another person. That’s why we love seeing or hearing stories about people who perform selfless acts. We actually get a shot of feeling good oxytocin from witnessing or hearing about it.

If you want to be a better leader and want your teams to meet objectives, then one of the most effective ways to do that is to create connection with them. I’m not talking about becoming best friends with them, but when you seek to create a connection, it increases the likelihood of oxytocin release, resulting in stronger feelings of trust and empathy. It helps to produce a more connected, happier workforce.

And shouldn’t that be a goal of ours in the workplace? A happy, connected workforce is healthier, more productive, and definitely more engaged. It’s characterized by people who have each other’s backs; they enlarge and strengthen the circle of safety. They’ll go the extra mile when asked, because they know it’s not only for their boss, it’s also in their own best interest. Think about how much better we’d work if our organizations were designed to function the same way we’re designed to function!

The bottom line is you have to do things differently if you want to succeed in creating high performing, sustainable teams. But we’ve only scratched the surface here today. And know this much – as simple as these things are, they’re also disruptive. They require time, energy, attention, maybe even money. But the payoff, when these things are done well, is exceptional.

To strengthen your leadership skills and improve your organization’s culture, connect with Kevin.