The Needy Iceberg — part 1 (Book Snippet 5)

The iceberg analogy reflects the fact that what we can physically see of ourselves — our body and our behaviour — is only a fraction of what we are. Just beneath the waterline, hidden from direct observation, is what only we can know about ourselves from the inside out. Let’s attempt to structure this unseen territory of our psyche by investigating four central components more closely: thoughts, feelings, values, and needs.

We will begin at the bottom of the iceberg by exploring our so-called psychological needs. Most people are familiar with our physiological needs (such as food, water, air, etc.), but unaware that there is a set of psychological needs whose fulfilment (or lack of fulfilment) has an effect on our well-being. Humans are born with a set of psychological needs that exist irrespective of our culture and that are therefore distinct from learned values, which we acquire through observing our parents, grandparents, siblings, peer-groups, and society.

There are five core needs [1] that shape much of our behaviour because we go to great lengths to secure their fulfilment:

1) the need to belong/be loved;

2) the need to express ourselves autonomously;

3) the need for growth/stimulation;

4) the need for predictability/safety, and

5) the need for meaning and significance.

As infants we are helpless and defenceless, and our survival depends on our ability to form a stable attachment to a primary caregiver [2]. We are genetically programmed to attempt to create a bond with the people that nourish us and, if at all possible, even to be loved by them. Love becomes the simplest measure for the strength of the attachment we have with someone, which is in turn a survival advantage. The stronger the emotional attachment a caretaker feels, the more likely they will do everything in their power to care for us and protect us from harm. But even when we are no longer physically dependent on another to feed and protect us, this need for belonging and love continues to influence us.

While it is simple to recognize how this need plays out in our personal relationships, it is less obvious how the need for belonging and love influences us in the workplace. We usually express this need in a way that is more suitable to the professional context — instead of saying that we want to be loved by our boss or co-workers, we say we want to be appreciated or liked. In the end it all boils down to the same thing: as humans we are social animals, and as such we are on a life-long quest for community, closeness, acceptance, and love.

Given our need for belonging/love, we can’t afford to risk being rejected, and we learn to turn our attention outward, instead of inward. We sense what others might want from us and shape ourselves into whatever we believe we need to be in order to be loveable instead of expressing how we feel, what we think, and want. Not a few of my clients realize during coaching just how much of their autonomous self-expression they have sacrificed in order to not be excluded by their parents, peer group, and later in life by their spouses, as well as in their teams and organizations. A child that is allowed more autonomous self-expression while feeling loved is more likely to develop a greater sense of self-efficacy; the degree to which it believes it is competent to achieve desired outcomes in the real world.

[1] Depending on which author you follow, you might find much bigger lists of needs than the five I refer to in this chapter. Since I believe that many so-called needs are actually acquired values, I condensed the list to five key needs that appear to be non-negotiable, irrespective of our specific cultural context. And remember: this is a model, not the truth!

[2] John Bowlby coined the term attachment theory. The theory describes how children form attachments to a caregiver, and the developmental consequences when this bond is severed or not fully formed.

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Coaching CEOs and founders to re-invent their organisation as a Conscious Tribe | Engaged employees | Executive Coaching: www.conscious-u.com