Recognizing the needs that lead to confrontations

Insight Into Violence Helps Us Redirect Workplace Conflicts: Part 1

Business decisions are influenced by more than money and expertise. One such influence is the passion that people have for their work, their organizations, their workforce, and their customers. Unfortunately, the same passions that lead to outstanding results can also lead to devastating conflicts. As a result I am always on the lookout for techniques that help channel or convert business passions from destructive to constructive ends.

I recently read a book called The Gift of Fear, Survival Signs that Protect Us, by Gavin De Becker (Little, Brown and Company, 1997). De Becker is a consultant who provides threat assessment and security services for celebrities, public officials, and business people who are at risk of violent attacks from stalkers, disgruntled former employees, and common criminals. I found a number of ideas he presented particularly interesting from a workplace conflict standpoint.

In Part 1 of this “Notebook” entry I examine De Becker’s realization that threats to basic needs lead to confrontations. In Part 2 I examine his “tipping point” analysis for predicting confrontations and his observations about the role that intuition plays in decisionmaking, then I close with pros and cons about the book from a business reader’s perspective.


Listen to the PODCAST: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (a 3.4 MB file, which takes a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


While Gavin De Becker’s work is focused primarily on avoiding violence, the principles he relies on to identify, deter, and defeat potential attackers are based on his broader observations about human motivation in conflict scenarios. De Becker’s observations about motivation are hardly unique — Maslow and Meyers-Briggs come to mind immediately as more widely recognized sources for such lists. But because De Becker’s observations are based on his career experience with thousands of violent and potentially violent individuals, I think his take on this may be uniquely practical for understanding and redirecting conflict.

De Becker finds that all of us, even stalkers and serial killers, tend to be motivated by the following simple needs:

  • establishing connections with other people
  • avoiding sadness from loss
  • avoiding rejection
  • obtaining recognition and attention
  • avoiding pain (even more than we are motivated to increase pleasure)
  • avoiding ridicule and embarrassment
  • obtaining the respect of other people, and
  • having control over our lives.

It’s easy to see how the same list of needs applies to non-violent people in the workplace when they are caught up in conflict with one another: even in the course of a purely business function, when our basic needs are threatened by something someone is doing or proposes to do, we naturally tend to push back to protect what we feel we need. Conflict is a likely byproduct when one or more people feels threatened, even when “it’s just business.” Consider the personal threats involved when issues arise like pay, budget, or being recognized for accomplishments or failures.

How does this help us convert workplace conflicts into more productive styles of communication? It suggests two steps we can take immediately after a conflict arises. First, we can work to identify the needs being put into play by the issue in conflict. Second, we can look for what can be added or subtracted from the issue in conflict which might reduce the impact on the needs of the people in conflict while still satisfying relevant business requirements. It’s like modifying a recipe for a pasta dish: There are many ways of maintaining the good taste of a dish while simultaneously reducing the sodium content by either substituting or changing the proportions of various salt-containing ingredients that were called for by the original recipe.

Having an open and honest discussion about the needs involved is not a trivial task. From personal experience I can assure you that people engaged in a conflict frequently fail to perceive (or admit to) the basic needs that have been challenged by “business” decisions or practices, or they identify such needs but underestimate intensity and influence. Even when a conflict is on its surface about dollars or hours or pencils or whatever, once emotions heat up you can bet that inside people’s heads and hearts there is much more going on. But when people are aware enough and feel safe enough to discuss personal needs, the payoff is that this can lead to approaches that reassure them or protect their interests so that they no longer take conflicting positions, while still satisfying business objectives.

One way to discover these needs is by asking questions like the following:

  • What are you afraid will be lost given the direction things are headed now?
  • What else do you expect to happen if the loss you want to avoid takes place?
  • How would you change what is happening–or what you expect to happen–if you could?
  • What else could be changed to achieve the same goals?
  • What about yourself would you change, if you could, to help?
  • Who do you feel connected to in this situation?
  • Who would you like to feel more connected to if you could?

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