Think for a moment of the last time you felt triggered — pushed into negative emotions by someone or something. Here, for example, are several of my triggers: feeling taken advantage of, not getting a response to an email I've sent to someone, and not being acknowledged for good work I've done.
We move into negative emotions — what we call the "Survival Zone" in our work at The Energy Project — when we feel a sense of threat or danger.
But what is the threat exactly? Over the past decade, my colleagues and I have asked thousands of our clients to describe something that consistently triggers them and then explain why.
Remarkably, we've found that a trigger can almost always be traced to the same root cause: the feeling of being devalued or diminished by someone else's words or behavior. Consider my triggers above.
The struggle to feel valued is one of the most insidious and least acknowledged issues in organizations. Most employees are expected to check their feelings at the door when they get to work. But try as we might, we can't.
How we're feeling — and most especially whether or not we feel acknowledged and appreciated — influences our behavior, consumes our energy and affects our decisions all day long, whether we're aware of it or not.
Our core emotional need is to feel valued. Without a stable sense of value, we don't know who we are and we don't feel safe in the world.
From an evolutionary perspective, the need to be valued is primal and survival-based. Sociologist Elijah Anderson describes respect as a key to the "code of the streets" in inner cities.
"The extent to which one person can raise himself up depends on his ability to put another person down," Anderson explains. "Many inner-city young men in particular, crave respect to such a degree that they will risk their lives to attain and maintain it."
It's not much different in organizations. Across more than 200 studies of the effects of stress, researchers have found that the highest rises in cortisol levels — meaning the most pernicious "fight or flight" response — are prompted by "threats to one's social acceptance, esteem and status."
To feel valued (and valuable) is almost as compelling a need as food. The more our value feels at risk, the more preoccupied we become with defending and restoring it, and the less value we're capable of creating in the world.
Doug Conant, the outgoing CEO of Campbell Soup and coauthor of a wonderful new book,Touchpoints, is a rare example of a CEO who truly appreciates the relationship between personal value and the bottom line.
Over the past decade, Conant has spent at least an hour a day writing between 10 and 20 handwritten notes to people in his company — welcoming new hires, thanking employees for their contributions, and congratulating leaders for specific accomplishments.
"Toughness on issues, tenderness with people," is Conant's mantra.
Great leaders, I'm convinced, are sensitive to people's deep need to feel valued because they recognize the same need — and the experience of vulnerability it prompts — in themselves.
When Conant took over as Campbell's CEO in 2001, the company's employee engagement scores were among the worst of any Fortune 500 company Gallup had ever polled. For every two engaged employees, one was disengaged.
Gallup's gold standard for companies is 12 engaged employees for every 1 who is disengaged. Today, Campbell's ratio is 17 to 1. Since Conant took over, the company's sales and earnings growth has consistently outperformed the majority of food companies in the S&P, as well as the S&P 500 itself.
Of course, there still aren't many leaders like Conant, so what do you do if you don't feel valued in your organization? The answer is to take the matter into your own hands.
It's not the other person's behavior that triggers you, after all, but rather the way you interpret that behavior, and how it makes you feel about yourself.
That's actually good news, because it suggests you're not a helpless victim. Rather than focusing attention on the other person when you feel triggered, try turning your attention inward.
First quiet your body and defuse the trigger by taking a deep breath. Next, ask yourself these "Why am I feeling my value is at stake here, and is it really?" Finally, consider how you can hold onto your value without attacking the value of the person you feel threatened by. Blame merely keeps the trigger and the negative emotion alive.
Our challenge is always to reconnect to our own core value — even when someone else's criticism cuts deep. What that requires, first and foremost, is compassion for ourselves.