Maslow for Choirs: Esteem Needs

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esteemFifth post in a series that starts here

Have you ever met anyone who:

  • always bustles into rehearsal 5 minutes late and faffs ostentatiously with their bag and coat and music while everyone else is already getting on with warming up? or who
  • repeatedly pipes up during rehearsal with things that need fixing, often at a tangent to the main thing you're working on? (Or the variant: who repeatedly identifies problems in a part other than their own?), or who
  • always has just one extra thing to add just when the choir announcements were finishing and thus causes them to over-run? or who
  • makes periodic complaints to the committee about decisions the director or other members of the choir leadership have made (repertoire choices, rehearsal strategies, stage wear)?, or who
  • won't blend?

If you have, then you have met someone whose esteem needs are showing.

Esteem needs sit between our more primal needs and our higher, complex needs. They are the part of us that continues to cry, 'Look at me, Mum!' years after we like to think we have grown out of it. They are the source of all attention-seeking behaviour, and lie behind much of the tribulation of choir politics.

You can recognise an esteem-need driven behaviour because it is inherently disruptive, but it will also likely be justifiable, at least in the mind of its perpetrator. The person who makes distracting suggestions in rehearsal or who complains to the committee has the good of the choir at heart. The person who won't blend is most likely an effective musician with a good voice. The person who is always late can't wait to tell you all the things they have battled through to get there at all.

In their heads, they aren't a problem. Indeed, in their heads - like all of us - they are the heroes of their own stories. The problem is that the stories they are telling about themselves require everybody else to adapt or abandon their own narratives to fit theirs. There are resonances with Transactional Analysis here: disruptive, esteem-needy choir members are often playing out the roles of victim or rescuer from the Karpman Triangle.

The trick to coping with this is to recognise, first, that esteem needs are real and valid. However irritating the form of behaviour that manifests, the motivation behind it is normal and human. (It would, after all, show a stunning lack of self-awareness for a director not to sympathise with the desire to be the centre of attention. Ahem.) The second thing, though, is not to feed the problem behaviour.

Take the late-comer. In their heads they are already the victim of circumstance. There will be a litany of work, family, traffic and miscellaneous other hurdles they have overcome to get there at all. If when they get to rehearsal their lateness receives attention, their need is satisfied and the behaviour reinforced. They know now how to get everybody looking at them and the director talking to them instead of anyone else. Indeed, a negative response feeds this need even more than appearing to condone the lateness, as it gives further grist to the victim narrative: 'And then I arrived, and I got told off, perfectly reasonable of course, but goodness I can't get anything right today....'

If you're going to have to deal with problem behaviour, the trick is to address it one-to-one, in private. Don't try and deal with one person by introducing a rule for everyone - that also rewards the problem behaviour. 'Look!' goes the subconscious, 'They made a rule because of me! I must be important!'

But you may find that actually dealing with the underlying need for attention actually dissipates the problem behaviour without any direct intervention. Because the behaviour is telling you that person needs to feel important. So, find ways to satisfy that need first, before addressing problematic habits.

Things you can do include:

  • Pay them a compliment. Any compliment will do, so long as it's true. Specifically, it doesn't have to be choir-related: simply noticing a new haircut will have an effect. But if you catch them doing something well in rehearsal, even better. Mention it. It will make them feel important.
  • Ask their advice about something. Again, it doesn't have to be choir-related, but it does have to be something about which you feel you can genuinely learn from them, or where their perspective offers something you couldn't get from someone else. There will be something they know more about than you - gardening, DIY, local politics. If you don't know what they're good at, that could be one reason why they're feeling needy. Find out, and enjoy the expertise of the people you make music with.
  • Give them a job to do. Sometimes, it may be appropriate for this to relate to the problems you've been having with them - getting someone who complains about stage wear on the wardrobe team, for instance - but be careful here not to feed the troll. More often there is an unrelated job that can satisfy their need to feel important without opening up the wounds of past conflicts.

The key thing with all of these is that is has to be for real. You can't simply invent a job to keep someone quiet if it's just make-work. Their needs are real and valid, and you and the rest of the choir have to feeling genuinely grateful for their efforts if they are to get the benefit.

Once you've addressed their esteem needs, the behaviour that signalled their existence may or may not disappear. People get into patterns of behaviour, and those habits sometimes persist beyond the circumstances that produced them. But if you do still need to have the one-to-one chat about it, you will be doing so from a far better relationship than before. And if their esteem needs are being met elsewhere, you are far more likely to get a receptive rather than defensive response.

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