Basic Human Needs, Resilience and Psychological Safety in the Age of Covid-19


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By: Corry Robertson, PCC

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If you turn the volume down on the hysteria expressed by many who are panic stricken, you’ll notice that Covid 19 is bringing along with it something that experts have been asking corporate leaders and governments to do for years: slow down, rethink, and find new ways of getting things done.

Before Covid 19, workplace stress has been a pandemic plaguing us for decades – killing companies and killing people. Watch the video here.

I recently spoke about this death toll and shared some insight on how and why humanity has turned a blind eye to the crisis. 

It’s a VUCA world

VUCA equals volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

It was first used in 1987 by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus – then later adopted by U.S. Army War College to describe the post Cold War world. Now the concept is being used in business as part of strategic planning considerations.

Covid 19 has forced us all to think about how to live and work in a VUCA world.

The past can help our future

In 1943, Psychologist Abraham Maslow explained that there is a hierarchy of 5 needs human beings need to thrive. 

First, you need to be physically safe. Covid 19 has taken that away from us for now.

Second, you need to feel that your livelihood is secure. Covid 19 is also threatening that.

But the 3 final needs are where we can thrive and be powerful:

#3 – You need a sense of connection and belonging with other people.

#4 – You need the self-esteem and satisfaction that comes from a job well done.

#5 – You need to self-actualize.

Self-actualization means that you have a sense of purpose knowing that your work serves the world around you, and that you have a vision for what will be better in the world because of your work

Not only that, but you have a mission for how you are going to put your talent towards living your purpose and making your vision a reality. (Download PDF Be a Better Boss)

The Post Covid-19 world must now be based on the fact that for companies to thrive, people must thrive

In a world that values all 5 basic human needs, companies will do better than ever and employees will equally be well, do well and stay well. 

But this reality won’t happen with leaders who are still running on the fumes of old school authoritarianism.

And it’s a two way street – for work cultures to be effective, letting go of authoritarianism means that employees need a new way of being as well.

Authoritarian leadership methods create cultures where the effort and responsibility comes from the top down. Employees can hide below the radar, do the minimum and just do what they are told.

“In a thriving culture everyone needs to be awake” 

The employee role in this new world is to develop a sense of inner resilience or grit, and this takes effort.

How to develop resilience

Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. It takes a degree of  inner strength, toughness, the willingness to bounce back, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back in the game, stronger than ever. 

It takes the ability to receive constructive feedback and the character to make changes based on the feedback.

Your employees need to build up their resilience muscles. Just like the muscles of the body, in order to get strong they have to make an effort on a consistent basis, you can’t do it for them.

What your employees need to do

At the core of building up resilience is the need to develop emotional intelligence.  Your employees can achieve greater emotional intelligence by:

  • Adopting a positive attitude (see the good in the present moment)
  • Regulating their emotions (don’t freak out when over extended)
  • Being optimistic in the face of setbacks and challenge (believing in a positive outcome)
  • Having a purpose (know your why)
  • Being adaptable (able to reinvent in the VUCA world)
  • Practicing humility in the face of wins and losses (get that ego in check)

As a leader, you can provide all of the training and coaching in the world, but your employees are the ones who have to do the heavy lifting here. If not, old school authoritarianism will win the day. No one wants to go back there – it’s a lose-lose proposition.

What leaders need to do

For employees to really practice resilience, you need to foster a culture of Psychological Safety.

On March 1, before our world changed forever I wrote an article and in it I shared some insight into the need to create a work culture where employees can speak up.

For an employee to be able to do this, they need a sense of Psychological Safety.

A person who feels psychologically safe can show vulnerability without the fear of negative consequences.

They feel allowed to take moderate risks, speak their mind, pitch out of the box ideas and stick their neck out without fear of having their head bitten off.

Tech teams need to produce fast, innovative, and high-quality results so leaders need to know how to build cultures where there is ongoing learning and adaptivity. 

Team members throughout the ranks need to have conversational skills where risky decisions can be hashed out leading to innovative and novel solutions. 

Low psychological safety can cause your employees to hide their mistakes, keep their mouths shut when they have legitimate concerns and cover up for peers. They won’t be able to practice resilience and they’ll appear to have no grit. 

Imagine the long term damage this can cause your company. 

“In the end, there is one thing that determines the highest performance, and that is psychological safety, If the team knows it is psychologically safe—which (includes)… the climate of appreciation, being respected and accepted—there is a high predictability for high performance.”

Hans Hagemann, The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance. 

Psychological Safety and Trust

The presence of trust is an indicator that you have established psychological safety and your employees are resilient.

“There’s no team without trust,” says Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google. 

Google conducted a two year study to understand the qualities of  a high performance team. The findings revealed that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety which means that team members trust that they won’t be punished if they make a mistake.

What is old is new again.

Referring to the French Revolution, Charles Dickens wrote The Tale of Two Cities in 1859. It begins…

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

It is the best of times and the worst of times now, and the new normal is taking shape before our eyes.  We have the opportunity to rebuild our work cultures on a new foundation. 

Work can and should be wonderful. Let’s go back to a world where people and companies alike can thrive. Let’s take our turn at building a better world.


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Corry Robertson

Sought-after coaching culture expert, Corry Robertson has been helping leaders uplevel employee retention and performance for over 20 years.

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