Why doesn’t anyone teach us that problems are unmet needs?
What Are We Taught to Do?
We are socialized to see problems as bad or things to solve asap. This makes us either avoid problems or say things such as “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!”. This also makes us a bit scared of problems as we have been taught to avoid mistakes; problems bring up this fear of mistakes. Further, our habit of “fixing” problems facilitates reacting quickly to them without necessarily considering the deeper issues that create the problems we see.
Our reactivity toward problems also creates unwanted consequences that further reinforce our anxiety about problems. It becomes a negative feedback loop.
Is it a Symptom or Problem?
How do we know the difference between symptoms and problems?
When we see an outcome, we can wonder if it is a result of something else or not. Talent turnover, for instance, is a symptom of unhappy employees who quit to find a better workplace. Unhappiness in employee is a symptom of teams that affect people negatively. Examples include having a directive boss or being criticized, judged or blamed (CJB). It might also include expectations that are set high during the recruitment process that are not successfully put into action. For instance, expectations about the company culture.
Talent turnover is also a problem for companies, as it destabilizes productivity and increases recruitment costs. Yet, even when it is a problem, it is rooted in inner human needs that need to be met to be solved.
Symptoms and Problems are Unmet Needs
The deepest “problems” are unmet needs. We humans are motivated by invisible, internal needs. These needs include:
- certainty = I am safe
- significance = I matter
- love = I belong
- variety = I am engaged
- growth = I develop
- contribution = I give my best
Of course, these needs are prioritized after oxygen, food, water and shelter.
We are taught that humans are driven by position power, prestige and money. Yet, those are actually symbols of our inner needs.
A New Mindset Changes Everything
When we see symptoms or problems as unmet needs, we start to see things differently. As a result, we identify new ways of responding to them that increases the probability of solving them at the core level. When we solve things at their root, we stop them from popping up again.
Imagine someone on your team, Megyn, tells you that if she does not get a raise she will quit. Maybe you are surprised and feel compelled to give her a raise. Maybe capitulating to her demands makes you feel pressured and trapped, which might create other feelings or related actions that slip out without your awareness. All this time, you have been seeing Megyn as an important part of the project with fears of delays if she quit.
Imagine another way of seeing Megyn’s act, when you:
- See her demand and threat as unmet needs
- See her as a human with emotional needs, triggers and unlimited potential
- Search for additional data points through inquiry
- Ask her what prompted her demand/threat at that moment, not one week before or six months in the future
- Ask her what this raise will represent to her (which needs it will fill).
In doing so, you have a meaningful discussion that helps you understand what is motivating her behavior. At the same time, you help her feel heard, respected and appreciated.
Other people on the team might feel the same way. Understanding Megyn’s experience helps you prevent such repeat behavior. You can talk to the Human Resources team to see if this is a common issue. In the end, you might give Megyn the raise. Yet, with conscious choice instead of reactivity. You will feel better and so will Megyn. You will take action to deal with the issues that brought Megyn to this point. In doing so, you will solve the problem instead of plug the symptom. The WHAT might be the same, but the HOW is totally different — more humane.
Seeing symptoms and problems as unmet needs is a way to humanize your leadership. To read more about why it is important to do this in 2020, read this blog.
An Exercise for You
With the next symptom or problem you face, see it as unmet needs:
- What do you feel?
- Which thoughts match your feelings?
- What do your thoughts and feelings prompt you to do?
- Which ideas surface and how might you solve the core needs vs merely the symptoms?