How to Overcome a Survival Mode Culture

Secure bases are environments that protect, nurture – and most importantly – provide motivation. They allow us to take intelligent risks and challenge ourselves. During childhood, parents are responsible for establishing a secure base at home, and teachers are expected to do the same in the classroom. It shouldn’t end here though. It’s important we remember that leaders need to cultivate a similarly secure emotional dynamic in the workplace.

George Kohlrieser—psychologist, professor of leadership at IMD in Switzerland, and participant in my Leadership: A Master Class video series—observes that having a secure base at work is crucial for high performance. Kohlrieser asserts that feeling secure allows a person to focus better on her work, achieve goals, and perceive impending obstacles as challenges, not threats. He explains:

When you offer a secure base, you begin to manifest trust and safety. When a person feels safe in her environment, she can transition from basic survival mode thinking to a more complex outlook, looking for opportunities and chances to thrive.”

In extreme situations, this lack of a secure base can even foster paralysis. Kohlrieser told me, “Far too often, people tell me they distrust their bosses. This is horrific! They’re occupied with thoughts like, Who’s going to stab me in the back? Who’s against me? If they don’t have the support to seek calculated risks, they won’t. Instead, they work to avoid risk. They’re afraid of failure. They don’t dare themselves to maximize their potential. As a leader, you’re expected to seek risks, challenges, and opportunities; and if you’re smart, you’ll create a safe space for your team to do the same.“

The Ingredients of a Secure Base

Sense of Belonging

It’s a leader’s job to ensure all team members feel welcome and see their efforts as valuable. With difficult team members, a leader must be exceedingly open. She’ll need to put the proverbial fish on the table, and ask, “Do you really want to belong to this team? If you are ambivalent, it’s going to be a source of conflict.”


We all want to feel we have a say. That’s why leaders should offer their employees choice and power over what they can do, whenever possible. When you delegate wisely, you open up possibilities to let people shine. Additionally, creating a foundation of support often leads to explosions of creativity.

Forward Momentum

When a work conflict isn’t resolved, backlash is inevitable. It’s important that the entire team, leader included, has a procedure in place for getting over what happened. Be a leader who speaks the truth, but speaks it with empathy. And remember: the future is the future, and the past is the past.


Leaders can create a secure base by helping employees identify their unique strengths and weaknesses, and then linking them to their personal and career aspirations. These leaders will encourage employees to establish long-term development goals and help them conceptualize a plan for attaining them. They’ll also make agreements with their employees about their role and responsibilities in enacting development plans, and they give plentiful instruction and feedback.


Research on leadership styles finds perfectionists (sometimes called “pacesetters”) have a negative impact on their direct reports’ emotional state and performance. Perfectionist leaders only give failing grades – they never praise good performance. When you encounter a mistake, frame it as a lesson, rather than just another blunder.

Which aspect of your company’s culture needs attention right now? Take this Qzzr quiz for a quick diagnostic.

Additional resources:

Leadership: A Master Class: The eight-part video collection includes more than eight hours of research findings, case studies and valuable industry expertise through in-depth interviews with respected leaders in executive management, organizational research, workplace psychology, negotiation and senior hiring. Corporate and educational licensing available.

What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters: A compilation of my Harvard Business Review articles and other business journal writings in one volume. This often-cited, proven-effective material has become essential reading for leaders, coaches and educators committed to fostering stellar management, increasing performance, and driving innovation.

The HR and EI Collection: The combination of books and audio tools offers actionable findings on how leaders can foster group flow to maximize innovation, drive, and motivation to deliver bottom-line results.

Resonant Leadership: Inspiring Others Through Emotional Intelligence: This master class by Richard Boyatzis (co-author of Primal Leadership and Chair of Organizational Development at the Weatherhead School of Management) offers you the tools to become the leader you want to be—including exercises to reassess valuable and effective techniques.

Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence: Focus uncovers the science of attention in all its varieties – presenting a groundbreaking look at this overlooked and underrated asset, and why it matters enormously for how we feel, and succeed, in life.

Additional reading:

A More Mindful Workforce

4 Components Required to Sustain Innovation

The Benefits of a Productive Cocoon

What Makes a Leader?





Photo: imging / shutterstock