I was reminded recently of an interesting experience I had at a New Zealand Institute of Directors luncheon last year, where there was 8 tables of 10 people, with 1 woman at each table (10%).  The luncheon event was for individual’s who were interested in understanding what’s involved in undertaking a position on an Executive Board and how the skills required for governance differ from those utilised within management. Each table was given a task of discussing a particular governance topic and then presenting this discussion back to the room.

Here’s what I found interesting, with the exception of our table, it was the woman at every other table who had taken the discussion notes and who presented on behalf of their group. Given that women made up just 10% of the room, why under those conditions were 87.5% of the notes/presentation undertaken by women?

Here is the kicker for me. Had I not previously been given some very sage advice about why when you are the minority of a group to take a position of Mirror and Match rather than differentiating yourself, I too would have volunteered to take the notes and present. Why would I have done this? One reason maybe that it’s in my nature to help others, but if I’m really honest I suspect I would have been feeding my own needs for Certainty, Significance and Contribution in this situation.

All human behaviour is driven by attempts to meet our needs, based upon the unconscious beliefs that we hold about ourselves. Everybody has the same underlying needs. None of these are more positive or negative than the others. It’s the strategies we unconsciously deploy to meet these needs that can either empower or disempower us.

The six human needs are;

  • Certainty
  • Variety
  • Significance
  • Love/Connection
  • Growth
  • Contribution

Had I volunteered to take the notes, I would have done so from the belief that I’m good at what I do, I’m confident that I would have done a great job and I would have been thanked by the group for doing it, so my Certainty and Significance needs would have been met.  And when your needs are met, we will unconsciously repeat the same behaviours again and again.

In retrospect, I can now see how this desire to ‘help others’ has led me to two bouts of burnout when working in this way within the corporate world. I was always promoted (Significance) and financially rewarded (Certainty) at work for going above and beyond by taking on additional responsibilities, seeing what needed to be done to enable something to progress and just doing it (Contribution). I was referred to as a ‘high performer’ and called upon to deliver. This external acknowledgement brings with it both a sense of control and purpose, but what are we really controlling and whose purpose are we delivering upon?

What may appear as random unexplained human behaviour under varying conditions is not random at all.  All behaviour follows a pattern. A pattern of how we attempt to meet our needs. These patterns all stem from our underlying beliefs about who we are and what we are valued for. These are mostly unconscious beliefs and this means that our subsequent behavioural patterns are something that we are often completely unaware of. We are simply running on auto pilot based on our conditioned programming.

Looking back to the occurrence at the Institute of Directors lunch, I suspect I was very much not alone in operating from my ‘helping’ auto pilot…..is it time to take a look at what’s really driving you?