Author Christine Comaford on Using Psychology to Engage Employees

by Sheryl Nance-Nash

4 min read

Three simple words — and creating an organizational culture around the principles they embody — may be key to your company’s success: safety, belonging, and mattering.

“If you want to outperform, outsell, and out-innovate the competition, take a cue from Maslow,” says Christine Comaford, author of SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together.

Perhaps you think Maslow’s theory of hierarchy is mere psychobabble. But Comaford says that if you give your employees a sense of the three things they deeply crave — safety, belonging, and mattering — then you’ll get what you want back from them as an employer. This may be peak performance, innovation, creativity, or anything else you need to best your competition.

The trio of words is familiar enough, but just how does each one apply to the workplace?

“Safety is the ability to take emotional, intellectual, and physical risk — to be able to stand up in a meeting, state your idea, and not be terrified, even if you’re speaking on something outside your scope,” Comaford explains. She says you feel safe if you’re OK with admitting you are struggling and asking others for help; you don’t worry that doing so will lead to chastisement.

Belonging is a sense that everyone is part of the team and has equal value. “There is no in-group or special treats for certain people. Everyone should feel part of the übertribe. Nobody is extra-special,” she explains.

Meanwhile, although everyone is part of the team, each individual is recognized for his or her individual value — that’s mattering. “No one should feel like a replacement part, but valued for their specific gifts,” Comaford says.

The Power Behind the Words

Why are safety, belonging, and mattering so powerful? “They are the prerequisites for getting people to their Smart State and moving from their Critter State,” she explains.

The Critter State is one of fear and flight: The employee shuts down and is unproductive. The Smart State is the opposite: The employee is collaborating, innovating, and thriving. At a time when only 29 percent of Americans are engaged in their workplaces, Comaford says, getting to the bottom of what an employee subconsciously craves is crucial, particularly at small businesses, where fewer people must do more.

“Leaders must realize the lights are on, but nobody is home. If more employees were engaged, what would it do for the top line? It’s time to get primal, to understand neuroscience,” says Comaford.

A highly engaged workforce is 35 percent more productive and develops new products 48 percent faster than an unengaged one, Comaford says.

“The small-business world is aware of the importance of safety, belonging, and mattering, but some managers feel there isn’t time to address these issues,” she says.

However, doing so should be a priority, “This is about return on investment. If you can get your company performing at record levels, it’s worth the time to create a culture that is more collaborative, fun, and not one of fear.”

Here are Comaford’s top tips for creating a workplace culture that fosters employee engagement:

1. Determine what your company lacks. Take an honest look. Do you see a revolving door, employee cliques, or staffers who are afraid to ask questions? If you’re not sure what’s missing, Comaford offers some clues: For example, if your team has an “us vs. them” mentality, people crave belonging, she says. If they behave like victims and complain that they aren’t appreciated, they want to know that they matter. If there’s an undertone of fear to supervisor-employee interactions, they need safety. “Once you know which subconscious need is most outstanding, do everything you can to satisfy it,” Comaford says.

2. Create and share an engaging mission, vision, and value set. Establishing a clear direction for the company will draw people together for a greater cause, help them to see where they are headed together, and set their “code of conduct” as a tribe, Comaford says.

3. Make each job personal. Every employee should have an individual development plan.  An employee and manager map out a strategy and steps for an employee’s advancement. For example, someone who is currently a stock clerk should have a clear picture of what they need to do to one day be a division manager, and their manager should say how the company will work to get them there. This kind of effort tells them that they matter and shows how they belong at the company. By mapping out a plan, it says you see them with you for the long-term, which makes them feel safe.

4. Celebrate successes. Find occasions to point out people’s accomplishments, whether by touting their achievements in company newsletters or in staff meetings, or by something as simple as the boss giving an employee a high-five. The point it to make your employees feel good publicly.

5. Forget command and control. Leadership isn’t about barking orders and instructions. A gentler approach will generally get better results. According to  Comaford, “You help people envision an exciting future and invite them to join you in creating it. That’s real influence.” And it’s the kind of win-win that ultimately benefits your bottom line.

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