#435  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 11          November 1999

The Need for Nurturance: Actions and Reactions 
by Roger A. Meyer, Ph.D.

Dr. Meyer is owner of Brainerd Consulting Services in Chattanooga, TN (phone 423.892.6000; email consultroger@hotmail.com; bcs-brainerdconsulting.com), assisting companies through evaluation, training and individual and group consultation.

A corporate vice president couldn’t believe it when he was accused of sexually harassing a junior executive whom he had mentored.  He was unable to see how his actions could have been misconstrued.  He had tried to teach her to relate with others in order to effectively manipulate corporate politics.  He had emphasized the need to “pay your dues” to get recognized as a team player, doing little things for those with power.  He tried to show her how to help others in order to gain their cooperation in the future.  He focused her on being aware of others’ needs in order to gain power.  He encouraged her to practice these ideas in her relationship to him, believing he was a good learning model.  When accused, it seemed to him that she had done the opposite of what he had tried to help her learn. 

She heard the VP telling her to take care of him, and then he would look after her. She saw him as a paradox, a powerful executive hiding an inner, lonely, needy little boy.  When he got upset because she refused to do the little favors he kept asking, what she heard was his wanting her to serve him like a wife or mother.  In her view, he was using his power to control her in a sexist fashion, demeaning her talents and skills as well as debasing her personally.

Controlled by One’s Needs

Many executives and managers have problems with the people with whom they interact most.  This lies in their unacknowledged need for nurturance, and is seen most often in middle-aged men; although women are certainly not immune.  These individuals frequently become powerful due to their work-a-holic behavior. By focusing on work, they avoid feeling the emptiness and neediness inside, which is part of a long term, low level of depression.  They gain both admiration and power through hard work. Admiration motivates some workers to care for them, meeting their nurturance needs in a positive way.  Their power compels other workers to act caring, when in reality they fear and despise their boss.  There is good reason for millions to laugh at Dilbert’s pointy haired boss and Mr. Dithers, Dagwood’s CEO.

Other executives and managers, aware of their need for nurturance, fear showing it.  They are afraid to open up or seek help, fearing others will see them as weak and vulnerable.  They become aloof, isolated, and even more needy.  Overcompensating for their neediness, they turn more and more to using their power, withdrawing further from others emotionally.  They are impatient, demanding perfection from their subordinates and refusing to acknowledge any weakness.  They become stubborn and resistant to suggestions because they believe this infers that they are not fully capable.  These executives surround themselves with “Yes” men and women, who flatter and serve their every whim.  However, inside they long to hear honest, independent opinions, because they don’t trust themselves; their confidence being a façade. 

In the past, showing softness was considered unacceptable.  The press savaged Vice-President Mondale for having tears in his eyes after losing the New Hampshire presidential primary.  Pat Schroeder was also put down for being too feminine when she cried in public while running in the presidential primary.  More recently however, General Schwartzkopf, who is not likely to be put down as too soft, showed his emotions openly when he commented on the deaths of his troops in Desert Storm.  Today, modern society is more accepting, so there is no reason to deny or hide one’s needs.

Sublimating Needs

Some managers, not feeling comfortable in an aggressively controlling role, sublimate their need for nurturance through leadership in charitable or civic work.  There they find other people who give them nurturance and affirmation.  And those served show a great deal of gratitude.  This is a positive sublimation of their needs.  But these activities must be genuine, expressing true desires to serve, or they do not fulfill the person’s needs.

The movie, For the Boys, is about a male entertainer who performed tours to entertain our troops.  It presented a picture of a demanding, immature person who was the opposite of his public persona.  Having seen Bob Hope on the 1968 Vietnam Christmas tour, I assume the movie was about him.  President Clinton shows a great deal of caring; yet he obviously has strong needs that he inappropriately meets.  This paradoxical behavior is often reported about other powerful people (athletes, movie stars, musicians, and politicians as well as business executives).   The reader may also identify individuals they know who fit this mold.

Terrible Consequences

Some individuals’ need for nurturance drives them to self-defeating actions.  A manager passed up a promotion because he didn’t want to leave an office where he had surrounded himself with individuals who took care of him.  A micro-managing physician regularly blew up at the office staff, though expressing a wish to be loved by them.  The staff admired the doctor for medical care given, but feared inappropriate behaviors.  When several professionals left the group, this doctor mourned, but increased the explosive demands on those who remained.  In another case, a manager fired supervisors who dared to be bearers of bad news, only to rehire them later. 

Sometimes high-level individuals burn out because of the emotional demands put on them.  Keeping up a façade of competence and independence while having strong needs to depend on others for nurturance is too much to bear.  Like the physician mentioned above, they may be so demanding that they alienate the very people upon whom they depend.  When this happens, they frequently become angry, isolated, and more demanding.  They work even harder to gain the positive reactions they so crave, only to exhaust their inner resources.

Helping These People

These individuals must learn about themselves in order to make appropriate changes.  Most are in denial of their neediness; others hide it.  Therefore, it’s up to their peers or superiors to help them see what’s happening.  Some want to help a friend escape the consequences of the friend’s behavior.  Others are motivated to protect the organization from the inevitable turmoil.  An intervention (like those used to help alcoholics) is one way to break through denial and avoidance.  After laying aside their own hurt, anger and vengeance, those who are closely associated with the needy individual must assemble and share their concerns with that person.  By using tough love, they help the person see the facts and probable consequences.

Intervention is necessary before the person ruins his or her own career as well as the lives of others.  The personal and financial costs of not handling the situation are high: shattered careers, good people forced to leave a firm, hostile factions formed, a department that’s temporarily paralyzed due to conflict; or worse, a costly discrimination or harassment lawsuit.  If intervening restores disrupted relationships and communications, even if it follows an unpleasant incident, it is well worth the effort.  The best outcome is from intervening before the situation reaches a crisis.

The organization’s focus must continue to be on helping the department or group to effectively function.  Caring associates can assist by giving feedback to the manager when further inappropriate behavior is seen.  A mentor can help make sense of peers’ feedback and plan how to handle situations.  However, the manager and others offended by him/her may need to seek professional help through psychotherapy.  This isn’t part of the organizational intervention but may be arranged through an Employee Assistance Program.

Understand the Individual

These behaviors can be evaluated using the ELEMENT-B (previously FIRO-B) questionnaire, which focuses on three areas of need, Inclusion, Control, and Openness.  Each area has two dimensions, Wanted and Expressed.  The Wanted factor in each of the three dimensions indicates what a person needs from others.  The Expressed factor indicates a person who initiates any of the three areas towards others.  Persons involved in inappropriate work relationships and their superiors can use this instrument to assist them in understanding the problem and planning how to handle the situation.

Unmet needs, both positive and negative, are a major focus of research on motivation.  When needs are properly directed or sublimated, they assist people in having productive and effective lives.  When needs are denied or hidden and come out inadvertently, they can create tremendous problems, hurt, and loss.  It is important to make these needs overt so that they can be appropriately handled before disaster hits.

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