Let’s assume that people do things because they want to.  That sounds simple enough.  But, why do they want to do those particular things?

managing conflict

As a manager, why people do what they do has often been a source of great frustration and curiosity, especially when what they do is at odds with what others are doing.

By looking at the motivations behind their actions, it just might be possible to better understand what is going on in situations of conflict.

I recall a staff member I once had.  She was awesome at her work, and could get everything done on time and correctly. She took great pride in her work, and gained great satisfaction from knowing that she did a good job. We looked at some promotional opportunities, and created ways for her to step up a level. The people who she would be working with were welcoming of the new addition to their team, but when we tried to make it happen, everything fell apart. I tried to show her the benefits of this new role, the new challenge, the opportunities for learning, the extra recognition …. but it all seemed to fall on deaf ears.  Her would-be colleagues tried to encourage her, but she withdrew and exercised a range of passive aggressive behaviours that basically undermined anyone’s attempts to “help” her.

I must admit I found myself scratching my head a bit, until I remembered something from a first year psychology subject I studied many years ago.

All people have some fairly common needs, and that some are more important than others. With this knowledge, we can see that when a need is largely satisfied, it is no longer motivational and the next higher need takes its place. For example, if someone’s Physiological Needs (food, water, sleep) are not being met, then their motivation will be directed solely to satisfying them. Until these basic needs are met, they will not be motivated to satisfy any higher needs.

Abraham Maslow came up either the idea, and his Hierarchy of Needs is shown in the following diagram.

Implications for Managing Conflict

So, for my employee, there must have been some need not being met at a lower level. As the theory goes, the current situation was somehow reflecting a mismatch between need levels.

So, we had a conversation.  I used all the tools in my bag to allow her to share with me what was going on.  Reading between the lines, I sensed that it came down to a sense of somehow not being good enough.  According to Maslow’s hierarchy, it was a case of her Esteem Needs not being met.  I explored this further, and it turned out that she was concerned that she would not fit in with her new work group.  Whereas they all had post-school qualifications, she had not finished Grade 10.

Although none of these people had been to school for over 15 years, this was still a matter of great concern to her.  Addressing it was key to enabling her to move on; for until this situation within the Esteem level was resolved there was no way that any opportunity to satisfy any higher needs would be a motivator.  This is why the “encouragement” of other staff was ineffective; it simply reinforced for her the deficit she already felt.

Knowing that, we were able to have a conversation about this and get to the heart of what really mattered for Susan. We kept her current role going, but with a slight change to enable her to study to gain some formal qualifications.  Because she had some limiting beliefs surrounding her ability to study, a high level of accountability was placed around this to ensure her success.  Because her proposed work group were keen to encourage her, we made the course for everybody so that they would be working on it together.  In this way, the “help” was transformed from something that others were doing to Susan from the vantage of a different level in the hierarchy, to something that happened within the same level.

With the qualification under her belt, we were able to satisfy her needs at the Esteem level and free her up to get back on track with the higher level needs, including an immediate promotion to her new role.

We can use this knowledge to create work spaces and activities that help to meet people’s needs. And by meeting those needs, we can create the conditions of motivation.

  • Physiological needs: Provide lunch breaks, rest breaks, and wages that are sufficient to purchase the essentials of life.
  • Safety Needs: Provide a safe working environment, retirement benefits, and job security.
  • Social Needs: Create a sense of community via team-based projects and social events.
  • Esteem Needs: Recognize achievements to make employees feel appreciated and valued. Offer job titles that convey the importance of the position.
  • Self-Actualization: Provide employees a challenge and the opportunity to reach their full career potential.

But, be warned.

It will be rare that you have your whole team motivated by the same need at the same time. This can make it tricky, because as we try to motivate one person by satisfying one set of needs, we may be demotivating another person by not satisfying their set of needs.  These are the differences that can create conflict.

Taking the time to publicly congratulate a new team member for a job well done (Esteem Needs) might have little effect if they are still trying to find their place within the team (Social Needs). Giving a new challenge to someone (Self-Actualisation Needs) is not likely to be effective if the person is experiencing sleepless nights with a sick child (Physiological Needs).  In both cases, we ought not be surprised if the person responds in an unexpected way.

So, basically, we require the ability to recognise the level at which each person is operating, and use those needs as levers to motivate the individual.

However, not all people are driven by the same needs – at any time different people may be motivated by entirely different factors. It is important to understand the needs being pursued by each employee. To motivate an employee, the manager must be able to recognize the needs level at which the employee is operating, and use those needs as levers for both motivation and conflict management.