It's the most compelling, preoccupying question we measure ourselves by every day, and it has very little to do with money. I'm talking about "worth" as in self-worth and "value," as in the degree to which we feel valued by others and valuable in the world. Nothing more powerfully influences our behavior and our effectiveness at work.
Because organizations pay so little attention to how people are feeling in the workplace, and because we ourselves are so often unaware of what we're feeling, we often fail to recognize the effect that our emotions have on us, and on others.
We all experience challenges to our value at work every day -- demanding and critical bosses, difficult clients and customers, tough assignments, tight deadlines, failure to achieve our goals, or the feeling that we're being excluded, singled out, overlooked, or not fully appreciated.
Think of each of these as a trigger: an event, a behavior, or a circumstance that prompts negative emotions -- and more specifically, the experience of fight or flight.
We don't have to worry anymore about being attacked by real lions and tigers, but we're still vulnerable to threats to our sense of self worth. When we respond in fight or flight, we're less able to think clearly, less flexible, less resilient, and more impulsive and reactive.
It's a reverse value proposition: the more we feel threatened, the more energy we spend defending, restoring, and asserting our value, and the less energy we have available to create value.
Difficult as they are to calculate, the costs to engagement, productivity, and performance are immense. There may be no more alienating and energy-draining experience at work than feeling diminished and devalued.
When we worked at a large, well-known hospital, for example, the nurses told us that the single biggest challenge to their satisfaction and effectiveness was the feeling of not being valued by the doctors. Turnover was a huge problem, even though the nurses loved their work with patients.
When we asked the doctors to describe their biggest challenge, they were unanimous. It was the feeling of not being appreciated by the hospital's administrators. The origin of the corrosive culture was clear. The president of the hospital, a former surgeon, was well known for his explosive temper and his abusive behavior with both doctors and nurses.
Our core emotional need is to feel valued. Some years ago, the researcher James Gilligan was called into a prison to try to help out with an inmate who kept assaulting guards, even after he was placed in solitary confinement 24 hours a day.
"What do you want so badly," Gilligan asked the inmate, "that you are willing to give up everything else in order to get it?"
"Pride, dignity, and self esteem," the inmate replied, instantly. "And I'm willing to kill any motherf----- in that cell block to get it. If you ain't got pride, you ain't got nothing."
Plainly, that's extreme, but as Daniel Goleman has written. "Threats to our standing in the eyes of others are ... almost as powerful as those to our very survival."
Researchers have found that the highest rises in cortisol levels -- the most extreme fight or flight response -- are prompted by "threats to one's social self, or threat to one's social acceptance, esteem, and status."
Just think about the difference between hearing a compliment and a criticism. Which are you more inclined to believe? What do you dwell on longer?
The researcher John Gottman has found that among married couples, it takes at least five positive comments to offset one negative one.
The first move when you've been triggered is the simplest: take a deep breath and exhale slowly. So long as your body is flooded with stress hormones, you literally can't think straight, so it's best not to react at all.
At The Energy Project, we call this the Golden Rule of Triggers: Whatever you feel compelled to do, don't.
As soon as you're calm enough, ask yourself, "How am I feeling my value is at risk here?" You'll make a fascinating discovery. It's not what the other person said that triggered you; it's how you interpreted it.
The less you can make it about your value, the more control you'll have over how you respond.
When leaders themselves are insecure, the most obvious symptoms are self-aggrandizement, high need for control, poor listening skills and impatience, all of which only make those who work for them feel devalued.
The more genuinely you hold the value of someone you manage -- even at moments when you must share a concern -- the more focus and positive energy that person will bring to the task at hand.
Turn your awareness on yourself. It's a powerful first step.
Want to see how well you're managing the energy of those you lead? Take The Energy Audit for Leaders.
Follow Tony Schwartz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TonySchwartz