Posts

Reduced Performance at Work

How to use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to diagnose and deal with what’s going on when someone’s performance at work takes a nosedive

Maslow’s framework has been around since 1943, when he wrote a paper called “A Theory of Human Motivation”, seeking to describe and explain the behavior and motivation of exemplary individuals, including Albert Einstein. It has some flaws and critics, but since it is so well known and follows an easily remembered structure it’s also a great tool to use when somebody just isn’t delivering anymore, or seems to have become quite ineffective compared to their normal levels of performance. Here’s how to use it that way.

As a point of principle, the approach I’m going to describe here is essentially a ‘pastoral’ one – that is, it’s about looking after people rather than blaming, criticizing or trying to fix them. After writing his 1943 paper, Maslow subsequently extended his ideas to include his observations of human beings’ innate curiosity. If a member of your team is no longer performing, set your own innate curiosity alight. Perhaps by yourself initially but then certainly in partnership with the person concerned, get curious about what might be going on.

Start at the bottom of the pyramid.

Physiological needs are the physical requirements for human survival – food, water, air, sleep, clothing, shelter – and the sexual instinct (according to Maslow). Check that your team member is looking after themselves physically: just basic stuff like are they taking lunch, is there water to drink?

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to point out to often very senior clients that they are driving and flying big distances and working very long hours and that the reason their performance is suffering is because they are simply really tired. Do they have opportunities for rest? Can they work from home? Can they stay over one or two nights a week instead of commuting?

Can you mention the sex issue with a colleague? I would argue “yes” if you have a pastoral responsibility to them. But how you do so is likely to be determined by your organisational culture. Just be aware that it isn’t only younger employees who may be staying out late and/or drinking more alcohol than usual in response to their basic sexual instincts.

Safety needs are about feeling secure and free from actual (and the threat of) physical and emotional harm. Does this person feel safe? Is their physical, emotional and economic security currently threatened by anything? Perhaps there are some basic issues that need to be addressed. If you can, ask them how they’d like you support them in feeling safer.

Since change is now just about the only constant we experience at work, I’ve yet to find a workplace that doesn’t include some anxiety. Either about job security if there are threats or even concern over the unknown caused by positive opportunities for growth and change. Often, all of this is left unspoken. Commercial sensitivities can mean that it’s hard to tell people exactly what changes are afoot.

To the extent that you can, talk through these things:

“I wonder if you’re concerned at all about X? I can’t give you all the exact details of what we’re doing, but here’s what I can tell you. When we’ve been though this kind of change before, there have been costs but positive aspects too.”

Tell them what your intention is during this next phase of change with regards to them personally, even if it’s just in principle for now rather than full practical details. Fear of the unknown is usually greater than fear of known risks.

Love and belonging. The third level of human needs is interpersonal and involves feelings of friendship and intimacy. People need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance among their social groups and a large part of that takes place at work. Many people become susceptible to loneliness, social anxiety, and clinical depression if their need for love and belonging is not satisfied.

My experience has been that the needs around social interaction and group-belonging are exceptionally strong drivers of behavior at work. Other psychologists since Maslow have written about things like Group Norms and how peer-pressure drives performance.

Is this individual getting on well with their peers and staff and other colleagues? Are they accepted for who they are? Are there any factors which might be isolating them or leaving them feeling disconnected? Do they have a mentor or confidant in the workplace?

Esteem is the need for respect from others and oneself. Needs for respect from others may include those for status, recognition and attention. The need for self-respect may include needs for independence, competence, mastery and self-confidence.

If someone’s performance has dropped markedly, has there been a change in what they might perceive as respect from others – for example, a change in their status or in the attention they get from bosses or peers? Are they getting appropriate recognition for who they are and what they bring?

Or perhaps their self-belief has taken a knock and for some reason they no longer respect themselves in a healthy way or their self-confidence is not what it was?

If you suspect that their self-respect might need a boost, now is a good time for you to adopt a coaching leadership style. Help them to see the situation for what it really is (probably just a bump in the road) and to set out a plan to deal with it, including some achievable goals and some learning, reflection and development.

Self-actualisation. Maslow describes this level as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. People may perceive or focus on this need very individually, so that what is self-actualisation to me or you may be very different for somebody else.

Experience suggests that a drop-off in someone’s performance or demeanour at work can be related to their self-actualisation. Consciously or unconsciously, they may have re-appraised what they want from their life or career. Or they may have re-assessed their own ability or the resources required to achieve an important life or career goal.

This is a time for some fairly in-depth conversations with the person concerned and you may need to take it step-by-step, ensuring that you first have the depth and quality of relationship with them to trust and respect each other enough.

Can you help them relate what they want from their career and life with what is available from their current job? Can you help them plot a course to enhance their abilities and develop the right resources to maximise what their current role offers? Is there space for them to self-actualise somewhere in the organization, if not in their current role? Can you help them exit in a positive and useful way, if that is the best solution?

Motivating Teams and Businesses

How to re-energise your team and rediscover momentum

Over the last couple of years I’ve worked with several teams, businesses and organisations who felt that they’d become stuck and had lost a large part of the passion and hunger for what they do. As a result, they were grinding along, with every step seeming to cost a huge amount of effort, losing out on opportunities and not really addressing the problems they were facing.

I’ve used the tools and techniques described here to help the top teams in those organisations and businesses to re-energise themselves and find their own momentum to carry them along.

It’s Not Just About Strategy

Some people will tell you that, in those grinding circumstances, your organisation, team or business needs to re-asses its strategic priorities. And I think there’s sometimes some truth in that. BUT – you’ve got to do one or two other things first. Otherwise, when that strategic re-assessment is required, that also just becomes another ineffective part of the soulless grind.

It’s Not Just About ‘Why’

There’s also been a lot of interest recently in Finding Your ‘Why’.
People say, “Always start with your why” – Why did you go into that business, in that segment? – Why does your organisation or your particular team exist?

And this is a good exercise to do when you already have momentum and want to have a coherent marketing message. In fact, the WHY is one of the most powerful marketing messages there is. BUT – my experience has been, when it comes to re-energising your own business and finding that momentum that will carry your team forwards, asking “Why” can stop you dead in your tracks.

It Can Be a Virtuous Circle

I don’t know about you, but I started doing what I do because I felt I might be able to become good at it. Along the way, I had to overcome quite a few obstacles. And as I started to get better at doing it, I liked it more and more. I believe this virtuous circle is the key to re-energising your team and finding momentum, and it’s the one I’ve used successfully with those teams and businesses over the last couple of years.


At its simplest, I think people enjoy doing what they’re good at and that this enjoyment carries them over any obstacles to becoming even better at it. And that overcoming those obstacles is itself a way of getting even better.

Motivating Teams and Businesses


If you want to re-energise your team, business or organisation, and find the momentum to carry them forward, you need to remind people how they’ve already lived this virtuous circle.

I’ve used lots of different tools and techniques to do this. First, because I like experimenting, finding out what works. And second, because I like to take an approach that is tailored specifically to a particular team or business, so that it is really effective and is just for them and they can own it as theirs.

Tools, Techniques and Guiding Principles

Amongst these tools and techniques, there are three guiding principles that I think should always be present:

1. Time

It’s so easy when you’re in the busy day-to-day of running things to forget your story. We tend to focus on what needs to come next and forget to look back, at what’s already happened. As Bob Marley sang:

If you know your history, then you will know where you’re comin’ from…

I’ll always include some way of representing the journey of that team and business from the past through the present. And along the way they’ll also get a chance to remember what they had to overcome to get there and what they had to become good at doing.

There are many different ways to anchor that journey over time, so that the exercise can breathe some life into their experience, but the best ways usually seem to…

2. Play to Their Strengths

For example, if this is a team who are good at thinking in logical steps, I’ll use a ‘spatial anchoring’ technique, marking the timeline of their business along the floor and re-tracing their steps from the past to the present. If they’re a team who listens well, I might have different members represent key points along the timeline, and tell the story of that point as the group moves along. I’ve asked video production companies to make a visual vignettes of their business’s journey. One organisation I visited used bright colours and diagrams everywhere, so I asked them to colour-code and map-out the obstacles they’d had to overcome and the things they’d enjoyed along the way. Another business, good at summarising and explaining to each other, were asked to peg out cards to an impromptu washing-line, each card briefly describing their experiences over the 15 years since their business was founded.

Once you’ve got the timeline represented in some way, with a good recollection of the obstacles they’ve had to overcome and the things they’ve become good at doing, you need to make sure there is…

3. Space for the Future

I don’t know about you, but I want room to grow into. I want to know that there is space and potential in my future. Not too much space, because I don’t want to be rattling around not knowing where to go, but enough space to house my ambitions.

I think teams and businesses are the same. The people that breathe life into those teams and businesses unconsciously need to see, feel and understand that there is a supporting structure that has enough space for an enjoyable future.
This is the key to the second part of what you’re trying to achieve – as well as re-energising them, you need keep them going. To create momentum to carry this team into the future.

Whatever technique you’ve used to represent their journey so far, make sure that it can also extend easily and spaciously into the future. So, for example, if you use the ‘spatial anchoring’ technique described above, make sure there’s also room along the floor to include the future without cramming it into a corner.


Recreate that virtuous circle for your team, business or organisation. Help them to re-live the overcoming of obstacles that got to where you are now, to reconnect with the things you’ve become good at along the way. If you can do that, then I think you are most of the way there to re-energising and rediscovering that enjoyment. If you can do it in a way which deploys those three principles of: Time, Playing to your Strengths and creating Space for the Future, then I believe you will also find the momentum you want.


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

What’s your reason for doing what you do?

How to use that reason to find motivation and direction and engage with your marketplace

Why did you choose the business or profession you’re in – and not something else?

All of the effort and heartache and the joy of when it works are so closely tied in to your reason for choosing it.

Research suggests that on the inside people often chose their business or profession, in their words: “Because I had to.” Often people interpret this as a lack of choice or perhaps a kind of compulsion. We find that when you dig a little, there’s usually a great story involved, of determination,  resourcefulness and dreams for the future.

If you look at that story as an outsider, once things have clicked into place and people understand the reason behind it, it tells you lots of things about what’s important to the founders and the people around them  – and what they want to leave behind, their legacy, what they want to be remembered for.

And one of the really brilliant things about uncovering the reason, is that the story behind it and the legacy you’re aiming for is a great way of standing out in your marketplace. It says something unique about you and your business and lets other people feel the strength of your “why”.  Clients and customers who feel aligned with your reason will engage with your business in a deep and enduring way.

The exercise we sometimes use to work with the reason behind your business is the Blue Plaque Game – that’s mine in the picture. To think about your own, imagine what a third person might have to say about you?

You might also like this link, to a Telegraph article about “Britain’s Best Blue Plaques”.


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

Leading with Motivational Source

How do you know when you or your staff do or don’t need recognition? And what tactics should you use?

Think about something that’s important to you in your work.

How do you know when you’ve done a good job at that?

Did you answer something like: “I just know” or “I can feel it in here“; or did you do something like touch your chest, head or stomach to show where in your body you know how you’ve done? If so, chances are that you’re Internally Referenced.

On the other hand, if you answered something like: “The results show that…” or “People tell me…” or you pointed towards some facts or figures, then you are likely Externally Referenced.

When you’re leading other people and want to be able to motivate them, or just need to understand more about your own needs for recognition (or not), then Motivation Source can be a really helpful tool.

For example, if you have a colleague who is strongly Internally Referenced, telling them “You did a great job with X” may mean very little to them and may even seem false or trite. Much better to just ask them to apply their own standards – “How do you reckon you did with X?” and then be prepared to explore that if their internal perception doesn’t match yours.

In these days of very wide and flat organisational structures, where people rarely get to see their boss, I often find myself with clients who are Externally Referenced and are really struggling with a lack of feedback. If you’re leading others who are Externally Referenced they either need to know from you how they’re doing, or they’ll need some regular data to show them.

People who are strongly Internally Referenced and able to keep it in balance can seem very self-confident. Unless they are extremely inflexible and never take into account other people’s points of view – at the far end of that spectrum is sociopathy.

People who are strongly Externally Referenced and able to keep it in balance will seem highly compassionate. Unless they are unable to be flexible and can’t ever make decisions based solely on their own views  – in which case they may become co-dependent.

If you can operate the right amount of choice and flexibility around being Internally Referenced or Externally Referenced in a particular situation, then you’re likely to have both self confidence and the ability to take into account the feelings and points of view of others. Which is not bad if you’re aiming at being a great leader!


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

The Motivation Equation

Motivation is like a chain – only as strong as its weakest link. Here’s my top five tips for motivating yourself and others

Motivation is a chain of unconscious questions or judgements that people make about things and is only as strong as its weakest link. Here’s my shorthand for the motivation equation, followed by a look at the questions or judgements that people make, along with my top tips for boosting personal motivation and leading others.

Motivation = Self-Belief x Task-Relevance x Outcome-Value

Self-Belief = “Can I do this task well?”
In my experience, personal self-belief is the single biggest factor in motivation and often overlooked by businesses. I’ve seen people move mountains with very little stake in the outcome, just for the sheer joy of exercising their personal empowerment.

Tip 1: Always start here.

Tip 2: When you need to motivate someone who is lacking in self-belief, remember Roosevelt’s saying: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” There is always something that somebody can do. Great leaders take the time and insight to find out what that is.

Task-Relevance = “If I do this task well, will it lead to the required outcome?”
People come undone at this link for two reasons. One: they only have one strategy, one way of doing things, and they always apply that regardless of relevance. Or two: they get rabbit-in-the-headlights syndrome trying to find the ‘right’ or ‘best’ thing to do.

Tip 3: Leaders need to encourage experimentation and the principle of failing forwards. Help your people to be more like scientists, engineers or artists: think of something to do that might lead to the required outcome, try it, evaluate its success, learn from it.

Outcome-Value = “How much do I personally want that outcome?”
This is the link where leaders most often seem to come undone, because they make assumptions about what’s important to others, based on what they themselves would want. By knowing what is important to individuals it becomes easier to frame the outcome, emphasising the elements which do match what is important to other people.

Tip 4:  For people who like achievement, emphasise the positive aspects of the outcome. For people who like to avoid problems, emphasise how this outcome will avoid something bad. If you’re talking to a group of people, mention both!

People are generally not that good at imagining forward to what things will be like when an outcome is actually achieved. Often, it seems to me, because they are focussed on the first two links in the motivation chain. I don’t think people actually do very much evaluating of what they really want or how things will be after something is achieved.

Tip 5: Good leaders paint a picture of how things will be once an outcome is achieved. They give people a feel for both the positive aspects and the problems-avoided by it (see Tip 4). They talk about what people will see and hear on the outside (the evidence) and how people might feel inside (the intrinsic reward).


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

Motivation: Towards Pleasure and Away From Pain

Keep an eye out over the next few days to observe and discover something new about your own motivations and those of the people around you. Here’s how.

Did you know that people tend to operate either a Towards or an Away-From motivation pattern? And that this can change from one context to another?

Motivation Towards tends to show up as positive, goal-seeking reward-based behaviour; focusing on what could go right.
Motivation Away-From tends to focus on avoiding problems and pain; on what might go wrong.

Both are useful in different contexts. When I’m chairing the audit committee in a hospital, it really helps to have people around who can focus on what can go wrong, or on what’s not working. When I’m looking to win a new contract, it really helps that my associates are positive, can-do people.

It used to be thought that these “Meta-programmes” (thought processes that guide and direct the sorting of our perceptions) were fixed and unchangeable. We now know that this isn’t true and that it is possible to choose.

As with almost everything, being aware is what counts. Being aware of what habits we are operating ourselves and of whether other people are in Towards or Away-From mode. Only then can we choose which is actually most helpful for ourselves and for our influence with others.


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers