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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Willey

How Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Can Help Us Heal as a Nation: Fearless in 5

We are living in a time unlike any other we've known. It’s unsettling, confusing and scary. I wanted to share a perspective that may help you understand your feelings today and how you can help create a better tomorrow.

While preparing for next week's course on "Control: Owning Your Power and Message" which is part III of the Fearless Strategies for Professional Growth workshop series, I had an 'ah ha' moment of enlightenment related to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you aren't familiar with it, check out this brief overview on the psychological framework he developed in 1943.

I'm guessing you may not feel like yourself right now. You may feel depressed, anxious and maybe even unmotivated to work. If you’re reading this, it's likely that you normally operate at the higher levels of the Hierarchy--Esteem and Self-Actualization--seeking to achieve your potential, or at the very least, success. You work hard to earn respect from others and build your reputation. However, due to Coronavirus, you 'dropped' down to the bottom of the Hierarchy--fearing for your life or those you care about along with your most basic needs (toilet paper stockpile, anyone?).

You aren't alone. The entire nation—actually, the entire world—now operates at the lowest Physiological level of the Hierarchy. Unless you’ve faced major surgery or a life-threatening illness, this may be the first time you’re functioning at the base of Maslow’s “Needs” pyramid. Understandably, it feels “off.”

As social distancing guidelines lightened up and we started to approach the return to 'life as we know it,' we began our ascent back up the Hierarchy, stepping up to the next need tier of Safety.

But then the perfect storm happened:

--We witnessed the horrifying video of George Floyd's murder.

--We weren't busy working in our company offices, commuting, or attending sporting events—in short, we weren’t distracted by any of the activities that normally fill our days and nights, so we saw the tragedy on TV and online... again, and again and again.

--We watched as Coronavirus magnified socioeconomic disparities; marginalized communities were suffering and dying at much higher rates.

--We began to feel unsafe, unable to achieve the Safety tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy which represents security, order, law, stability and freedom from fear.

And now we start to feel that heavy burden of hopelessness and anxiety. We question whether these protests and riots will be different than others we've experienced during our lifetime—those events triggered by the deaths of Dreasjon “Sean” Reed, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, Michelle Shirley, Redel Jones, Kenney Watkins, Rodney King, Arthur McDuffie...and far too many others.

With so many of us are stuck together at the bottom of the Hierarchy, we are in an unprecedented situation. I'm hopeful this will help dissipate rampant racial oppression, so our country and the world can unify and heal. As we seek to understand differing perspectives, join forces in protest and fight for our voices to be heard, we are actually helping each other reach the next level in Maslow’s Hierarchy—that coveted slice of Love and Belonging. This represents friendship, trust, acceptance, affection, love, and affiliation as part of a group.

If you are a leader, it's important to understand this dynamic so you can demonstrate empathy (and not expect everyone to operate like it’s pre-pandemic times). You can also do your part to help your organization progress along its journey.

Share the Hierarchy of Needs with your team and have an open discussion about where they are now.

--Put your heads together to find ways to 'climb back up the Hierarchy' to the Esteem and Self-Actualization “slice” quicker.

--Find ways to openly and honestly share feelings and diverse perspectives, without judgment. Know that the real work comes when you get comfortable being uncomfortable.

--Focus on 'controlling what you can control' for yourself and your team. What proactive steps can they take now to emerge stronger when the time is right? You can start by simply drafting emails that to send when it feels appropriate (perhaps in a day or two, maybe next week)?

I know it can be frustrating when you have responsibilities that need tending to, whether those are at home or at work… yet you feel like you are white-knuckling it as you try to make it home through the thickest fog you’ve ever experienced that prevents you from seeing 10 feet ahead of you.

Don’t drive off the road. Pull over and take a break if you need to. Give yourself the space to not focus on what’s a mile down the road right now. Do what you need to today. And if you have the energy, maybe tomorrow. And soon you will be in a rhythm and gain momentum. But don’t let this moment slip away. As hard as it may seem right now, remember it. Write down how you are feeling so you can look back on it and use it as fuel to accelerate change in the future. Share how you are feeling with others. And know you are not alone.

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