The key to effective collaboration in the workplace: unpacking emotional needs

vector picture showing a woman choosing between different types of mindsets: scared, sad, or happy

November 8, 2023

Collaboration is a vital component of success in any workplace, and understanding group dynamics is crucial to achieving effective collaboration. The manner in which we interact with a group is influenced by our emotional needs, which can either facilitate or jeopardise work relationships. In this article, we will delve into three categories of emotional needs that impact group dynamics and how they can affect our behaviour in a workplace setting. By exploring how to address these needs, we can create a better understanding of how to improve collaboration and foster stronger work relationships.

We’ve been living in a group all our lives.

Our first group is our family, the most important social structure we encounter. It is within the family group where we intuitively learn how we find our place. We observe the roles others unconsciously play and we chip in with our tailored role. For example, you grew up with a flashy sibling, so you learned that your role is being quiet. Or you were the mini-leader in the family, the first to do everything, and you’ve taken that further into adulthood. Most behaviours in a group stem from what we learned as children trying to figure out how our family system worked. 

The most basic need we develop in a group is the need to belong and to find a sense of significance and purpose. As children, we test out behaviours and roles to see what is more likely to bring us closer to what we perceive to be a place of belonging. Remember, this all happens outside of our awareness and ends up being deep-seated in our personality.

The ingredients of a group

A group is an entity in itself, greater than the sum of individual members’ input. It then follows that groups have specific components. Firstly, all groups have a task. The group task can be anything, from planning a birthday party to a million-dollar corporation mission. When people gather in a group, there is always a task at hand, either overt or covert. 

There’s more happening in a group than trying to attain the task, though. When individuals form a group, they bring their unconscious beliefs, needs and reactions to the mix, creating the group dynamic. Our feelings and assumptions might match with others, or they might clash. Oftentimes, both can happen within the same group. 

If we learn our way of belonging in a group from an early age and if group dynamics are such a crucial part of a group’s life, what are some common emotional needs that can become visible in a workplace group setting?

The need to connect: rejection anxiety

An unfulfilled need to connect can show up as intense feelings of insecurity and isolation. The idea of not being wanted is so threatening that succumbing to peer pressure is very likely. Assertively demanding something is an onerous feat because the perceived consequence is rejection from the group. This has the effect of developing weak self-esteem, which in turn weakens the courage to demand and to take hold. 

Because the need to fit into the group is very psychologically pressing, attention and evidence of being wanted is a very sought-after currency. Have you ever done work during your holiday, secretly hoping that you will get public appreciation from the team? It might be a sign of rejection anxiety. Or do you find it tough to be more decisive and confident in your team because you don’t want to hurt or upset anyone? It could indicate an unexplored fear of being isolated and alone.

The need to feel capable: fear of being unimportant

When we don’t feel capable we might feel inadequate to get a job done. We sense a reluctance to take responsibility for tasks and projects because that would mean a risk of everyone else seeing our flaws. The thought “I believe I can do it” seems to be in a distant universe. 

Because there’s a conflict between the fear of being unimportant and the fierce feelings of inadequacy, the need to feel capable can show up in overly dependent behaviours. We’ve all worked with someone who needed help and guidance for every task, no matter how minor, even if it takes dozens of times. It could be that it is a sign of ingeniously ensuring significance. Perpetually seeking reassurance can be a form of ruling through weakness.

The need to be good enough: fear of ridicule

If the need to be good enough is unaddressed, the individual’s unconscious motto is “I must prove myself”. This emerges in strong feelings of insecurity stemming from an unconscious fear of appearing stupid and being humiliated. As this anxiety of being seen as silly increases, snarky attacks towards other co-workers in the form of banter can come up – a safeguarding mechanism against humiliation. 

The most often-used way of ensuring control over the possibility of perceived humiliation is resisting change and perfectionism. If you find work process changes uncomfortable because you risk others thinking you don’t know them, ask yourself if there is a veiled need to feel validated. Or you might strive to do everything perfectly because anything less means losing control over the image you want others to have about you – it could indicate an unexplored longing to fit in.

The Metamorphosis

The most enduring way of addressing these needs is to facilitate corrective experiences in which you can sense what it’s like when the environment responds appropriately to your attempts to connect. 

In my work, I encourage clients to polish certain workplace skills that help them shift from self-doubt to self-confidence:

  • Assertive communication skills for those with a need to connect. You might start to feel more secure, and able to reach out in cooperation. You develop the motto “I belong”. 
  • Self-discipline skills for those feeling a need to be capable. The result of that is greater self-reliance which fosters feelings of competency. You learn the motto “I can do it”.
  • Group contribution skills for those feeling a need to be good enough. Changing the way you assume responsibility in the group leads to increased feelings of being valuable. You internalise the motto “I matter”.

Where do you stand?

We saw what makes up a group and how we worked out the unconscious role to play in groups across our lives. We looked at three core emotional needs that can hinder your performance in the work group if left unaddressed. The good news is that there are specific skills you can hone in the process that help you be happier at work.  

What’s your fear about? Take the next few days to simply notice your emotional reactions, without analysing or labelling. When do you feel hurt, irritated or challenged? What could that mean to you? You might be surprised by what you discover. I’d love to help you make sense of it all as part of my “anxiety maze” programme. Let’s talk to see how I can best serve your needs.