In my early twenties I worked in the entertainment division of the top public relations firm in Manhattan. The days were long, the nights star-studded and the environment the most toxic I’ve ever experienced. I was in a group of eight account executives and assistants overseen by the son of the firm’s founder. The father had little respect for the son, and the son had little respect for us. He belittled, reduced to tears, and fired people on a regular basis.
Feeling that nothing we did was right or appreciated, we lacked motivation and spent more energy looking for new jobs than performing well in the ones we had. The core of the problem was that none of us felt confident, connected or supported in our efforts. We lacked a “secure base,” what experts define as a key ingredient for professional excellence and performance.
The idea of a secure base comes from the work of John Bowlby, a revolutionary British psychoanalyst who recognized that the critical component to a child’s wellbeing lies in a healthy attachment to his or her parents. He (correctly) hypothesized that when parents behave empathically and respond to a child’s needs, the child builds a sense of (emotional) security that allows him to flourish.
Today, psychologist George Kohlrieser, an internationally recognized expert on leadership, applies the same theory to the professional arena. In an interview with Daniel Goleman, Kohlrieser asserted, “Secure bases are sources of protection, energy and comfort, allowing us to free our own energy.” When we feel this way at work, Kohlrieser suggests, we increase our ability to focus, overcome obstacles, explore, innovate, play, take risks and achieve goals. In short, having a secure base at work opens greater opportunities for success.
How to stay motivated by creating your own secure base
In the public relations firm where I worked, there was no secure-base leadership philosophy. In the trenches, however, we tried to subtly create connections and support that allowed each of us to make it through the day.
If any of this sounds similar to your current situation, then discovering how to stay motivated and proactively create your own secure base will be key to your success. The following secure base self-test (modeled on ideas introduced in Goleman’s Social Intelligence) offers a way to assess your experience. Respond to the following statements with True or False.
1. You feel appreciated, acknowledged and respected for your contribution(s) at work.
2. Your boss consistently actively listens, provides helpful feedback and provides useful guidance.
3. When there’s a problem in the office, everyone works as a team to resolve it.
4. You have a best friend at work.
5. You often feel calm throughout the work
6. You have more positive vs negative moments at work.
7. You feel confident, playful, able to take risks and innovative in your position.
8. The emotional tone of your office is healthy and motivational.
9. The attitude of the company you work for is collaborative, human and supportive.
10. Your company/office/team/co-workers feel like family.
1–3 True: Recognizing office toxicity is the first step to making change. Take a look at the questions to which you replied False; identify which areas, if improved, would allow you to feel a little better. Choose the one that feels most important and brainstorm what would have to happen to create better outcomes and implement a strategy to achieve them.
4–7 True: In the mid-range of a secure base lies an opportunity to build on your internal security by expanding your external connections. Share one or all of the answers you marked False with co-workers (including your boss, if that feels comfortable) and suggest that you work together to create a more positive environment by addressing these areas.
8–10 True: At the high end of the range, you have the opportunity to lead your office in creating an even more secure, supportive and successful environment. Challenge yourself to survey your office and identify where you feel you could introduce a fresh concept to elevate the already established secure base to an even higher level.
Less than a year after joining that public relations firm, I jumped ship to a smaller shop with a collaborative environment. There I flourished developing contacts, wonderful relationships with clients and co-workers and work that I enjoyed. Motivation is our reason(s) for behaving in a certain way. The more appreciated, supported and safe we feel at work, the more we want to work and perform well. Ultimately, I launched my own business and did so with a secure-base philosophy in mind. I love coming to work now, and so do my colleagues. For us, work seems like play—and that’s the best motivation of all.