At the Lead Like a Mother event last fall, the formidable Amanda Brinkman stopped me with something she said. She mentioned feeling like she is failing every day. Huhhh? C’monnnn. She’s AMANDA BRINKMAN. The woman who pioneered the Small Business Revolution, is raising her own lady boss and rocks self-proclaimed “cool hair” (watch the video).

If somebody like Amanda feels she’s a daily failure, what must us run-of-the mill Mother leaders feel like? We feel just like Amanda, carrying the weight of all those daily failures. Because we can’t possibly be, every day, at every moment, what everyone expects of us. Even though we fully expect it of ourselves, because, well, we just do.

Perhaps it would be beneficial for us to start thinking about our interactions with others the way Maslow structured his approach to human needs. There’s a clear hierarchy, from physical to felt needs, so they’re not all on the same level, clamoring for our immediate attention. It doesn’t make addressing those needs necessarily easier, but does make it more systematic. Helps us map out a plan.

Physiological Needs:

As mothers and as leaders this is our A1, top priority, numero uno job – to keep things thriving. It seems so obvious, but I think we often underestimate the role of basic needs. When my oldest son Chase was around 3, I would pick him up from daycare, and 4 out of 5 days he was so cranky it was difficult to get him to cooperate with even the simplest (or what should be) tasks of getting in the car and buckling up. And the whining – whoa. Wow. There was no power off button or even a volume dial on that racket, and it went on. And on. And onnnn. All the way home, putting both of us into moods that, well, let’s just say were not reflections of our “best selves.”

Then one day, by happenstance, I had a bottle of water in the car, and in an effort to stop the haranguing, shoved it into his little palm. He gulped it down and was absolutely delightful for the rest of the drive. Well, that was easy. Poor guy was dehydrated from playing at full tilt all day without stopping for adequate water breaks. Lesson learned. Always have plenty of water (and probably – no, definitely – snacks) at the ready. Granted, I really should have caught on to that earlier like most Moms, but in this department (and sooo, sooo many others) I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer.

Seems glaringly simple for toddlers, but it’s more obvious than you’d think for organizations as well. Burnout is a very real, often overlooked detriment to an organization’s ability to function at full capacity and ultimately succeed. And what leads to burnout is the taxing of basic human needs.

There’s been an abundance of research on what makes a good work environment – what employees need to perform at an optimal level. Whether you have an open work space or a setup that’s more conventional, it really comes down to satisfying basic human needs. Is the temperature comfortable? Are the lights bright enough (but not glaring)? Is the kitchen stocked in case people aren’t able to run out and grab lunch? Are there places to find quiet if needed? Do they feel free to take appropriate breaks without incurring the wrath of a hovering supervisor? Bottom line, if people aren’t physically comfortable, they feel undue stress and can’t do their best work.

Basic Needs First and Foremost:

  • Food/Drinks. We’re human. Our brains and bodies need fuel. Offer access to sustenance of some sort and pay for it when you can. You’d be surprised at the goodwill free coffee, snacks and the occasional “on the house” lunch portend.
  • Comfort. There’s nothing more distracting than being physically uncomfortable at either end of the spectrum. For heating/cooling, insist on standards with your building management (or absent that, at least provide blankets, window blinds and fans). Make sure furniture is ergonomically correct, lighting levels are right, and find solutions for screen glare.
  • Quiet. While open office environments tend to foster togetherness, they also get noisy with client calls and office chatter. Show your team you respect their need for focus, escape or privacy by providing places to take their laptops, or make a call they don’t particularly want their desk neighbors overhearing.
  • Rest. In our 24-hour, “always-on” culture, rest is regarded as slacking – a lack of commitment. But research says otherwise. Its findings declare that lack of rest contributes to significant deficiency of activity in the front and parietal lobes of the brain which are crucial for decision-making. Model rest-taking as an investment, not a professional liability.

Safety Needs:

I worked with a creative director who once remarked that it was good we didn’t have access to guns and knives on the job. Was his point extreme? Yes, of course. Was it valid? Incredibly. It’s important to create a workplace where your team feels free to speak out without fear of harm (physical or otherwise). An environment that fosters self-expression without fear of retribution or shame.

Are you engendering an atmosphere where your team can collaborate freely? Do employees feel uninhibited in generating ideas? Innovation thrives in a culture of true openness and acceptance. Risk-taking is scary, particularly among peers and superiors. Being brave in organizations is hard enough in a secure place, and nearly impossible in an atmosphere of high anxiety.

Safety measures:

• Lead by example and nuture new ideas.
• Shame any shamers.
• Dispense with any weaponry.

Belongingness and Love:

Attrition is the enemy of culture. Keeping people engaged and all-in, and making them feel a part of something greater is directly proportional to how connected they feel to one another. This doesn’t mean that everyone is the same, or even necessarily that they share the same values. It is a function of how well they understand one another, which leads to respect and a desire to make each other feel valued. Finding ways for people to connect beyond just the work of the day creates a depth to the relationships that drives them to support each other when things get tough. I’ve been inspired over the years watching individuals reach out and back their fellow mates. That cultural connective tissue creates a higher order sense of belonging throughout the organization.

A sense of belonging.

• Rituals and traditions. Create a variety of touchpoints for your team so they feel like they belong to something vibrant. These can be as simple as Friday morning donuts or more orchestrated events like regular town hall meetings. Whatever your culture, ensure that everyone owns a piece of it.
• Greater good attribution. Find ways to make everyone feel as if they are an essential part of the team’s success. Regular public and one-on-one acknowledgement of how individuals contribute is critical to fostering that affinity.
• Encourage friendships. Work pals play a big role in how much people value their workplace and their desire to stay. Inspire your team to relate to each other as people. Be intentional about connecting people you know share common ground, whether it be an interest in music, travel, books, movies, fashion, fitness, food, art, pets, video games – anything really.

Esteem Needs:

How do you make sure the members of your team feel accomplished in what they do? Beyond performance reviews and the occasional “way to be” pat on the back, provide platforms designed to foster feedback and acknowledgement – through peer-nominated awards, or a designated shout-out time at status.

While the rah-rah, woohoo positive reinforcement is absolutely critical, the flip side is equally important. The building of peak performers requires tough love too – ideally, in real time. As a manager, if you see something, say something. Don’t hide behind an email. Have a conversation. Share your point of view, but listen too. You’ll both walk away having learned something from it.

And don’t hide their light under a bushel. Public acknowledgements bears as much good will as money (ok, maybe not quite the same, but many people thrive on affirmation). It’s highly motivating. When individuals see that their good works are recognized in an arena of peers, they’re much more likely to continue to strive. Good work acknowledged, begets more good work. And throwing something of value against the kudos doesn’t hurt either. Be generous. It won’t go unnoticed.

  • Regularly acknowledge good works privately and in front of peers.
  • Reinforce positive contributions to the work or culture with tangible incentives.
  • Don’t avoid the tough conversations. The benefit of the outcome overwhelmingly trumps the awkwardness of initiating those chats.

And finally, Self Actualization:

Ahh, we’re here. We’ve reached the top of the pyramid. Isn’t the view amazing? Few of us will ever get to this vantage point. And those who do, regularly take a tumble down to their baser instincts. The point is, aspiration to the top is great, but unless you’re checking the other levels, you don’t have a prayer of ever getting there.

Oh, and one other thing? This hierarchy also applies to you. If you’re not taking care of yourself at every level, you will be no good to anyone else. So figure out what your “bottle of water” is and keep it handy so there’s less crying in the car.