Social Psychology - Motive One 'Belonging' - Part Four - 'Terror Management Theory' and 'Broaden & Build Theory'

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Social Psychology - Motive One 'Belonging' - Part Four - 'Terror Management Theory' and 'Broaden & Build Theory'

N Cubed Group
Published by Laurence Nicholson in Change · Tuesday 05 Dec 2023
The Core Social Psychology Motives in Change Management Series
Core Social Motive One – Belonging

By Laurence Nicholson

Part Four - ‘Terror Management Theory’ and ‘Broaden & Build Theory’

(For the Audio Podcast, click HERE)

Welcome back to this series on the Core Social Psychology Motives, and to part 4, the final part of this discussion around the first core social motive: Belonging.

In this article, we are taking a look at the final two sub-elements of ‘Belonging’; ‘Terror Management Theory’ and ‘Broaden & Build Theory’.

When a mission, be it a change or a new company vision, is considered meaningful to us, we feel we can securely dedicate our time and effort in contributing to this cause, and this represents one of the defence mechanisms we have developed as a species, to manage the fear and anxiety attributed to our mortal salience (the awareness that our ultimate death is inevitable).

I will talk about the defence mechanisms in a minute, but first I will explain Terror Management Theory.

At its heart, terror management theory places the desire to stay alive central to explaining our individual and social behaviour (remember our social identity discussion previously about having an individual identity and a social identity). It proposes that by being aware of our inevitable mortality, almost everything we do is driven, at some level, by fear and this creates anxiety (see para. 3 above). It is here that terror management identifies defence mechanisms we use to deal with this, and suggest they take one of the following paths: our proximal system (downstream or directly affecting health) that aims to distract and distance us from awareness of potential, or real, loss; our distal (upstream or indirectly affecting health) system that operates to prevent awareness of potential, or real, loss from reaching our consciousness by using existential buffers, such as money in the form of savings,  or from a more psychological perspective: a ‘quiet ego’.

When we feel our mortality, we experience existential ‘terror’, and we look for ways to feel like we are contributing to something meaningful, such as a team, culture, organisation, religious order or society as a whole. In understanding this, establishing a culture within the organisation that offers meaningfulness and develops self-esteem, will go some way towards reducing the anxiety of mortality.

When further considering the process of organisational change, the mortality salience can be thought of as being the ‘burning platforms’ popular in organisational change literature, and creates the urgency dynamic. In addition to this, there is often a sense of ‘enemy’ within an organisational change programme (see part one on ‘social cohesion’) which can be deliberately established in order to bring to awareness existential threats and various possibilities to enhance self-esteem, by leaders exploiting the terror management functions in order to provide impetus for the change they desire.

Ultimately, there is a high importance to accurately and appropriately communicating the needs and reasons for a change to occur, because only then will people form the groups (social cohesion, belongingness) that will act positively in embracing and delivering the change. That communication should also address the ‘terror’ of loss that employees will feel relating to the potential, whether realised or not, of job loss or changed roles, and having a well communicated and meaningful cause to ‘get behind’ represents our distal system of distraction.

Okay, so that is terror management theory. Now let’s take a look at ‘broaden & build theory’.

Now, where terror management theory relates to dealing with the fear of our mortality, and on the surface appears to be a positive approach, it is really ‘avoiding the negative’ by stimulating the fears.

This might be suited well to addressing a sense of urgency in relation to changes needed, it does represent quite a narrow focus, namely the fear of mortality (or loss - see above), many feel there are better, more positive ways to generate or encourage supportive behaviours and circumstances. That is where broaden and build theory comes in.

This is intrinsically an environment which facilitates positive ambition and emotions, and increases personal and organisational resources, through leaders who enable resilience through higher positive self-evaluation, a supportive social climate, and clarity of high-quality goals combined with higher functioning social interaction.

Research has established a strong link between strengthening team resilience and positive emotional cultures, leading to better team performance , as well as higher hopes which seem to be a significant contributing factor towards increased vigour, dedication and workplace integration.

I am going to leave the final word here, very much supporting the positive option of ‘broaden and build theory’, to Glass (2009):

“Positive emotions were found to be pivotal in enhancing employee performance, helping organisations make good decisions, facilitating workflow and motivation, and in developing authentically and charismatically. They also influence leadership styles, job enrichment, better team performance and satisfactory customer relations.”

In our society where we are actually hardwired to default to the negative, due to the negative bias of the limbic system in our brains, always asking what we did wrong? What can be better? Why didn’t we succeed? Applying positive psychology, such as that encapsulated in broaden and build theory, is both important and beneficial.

Well, that’s it for Part One: Belonging.

Parts two (Understanding), three (Controlling), four (Trusting) and five (Self-Enhancement), are all covered extensively in my coaching, along with a deeper look at all of the part one topics we have talked about.

If you are interested in reading (or listening) to those parts two to five in this level and format, contact me through our website ‘’ and I can discuss how to make these available to you, or ask about the coaching in ‘Social Psychology for Change Leaders’ and how to arrange this for your leadership or management team.

As always, leave me comments, good bad or indifferent, by email or against the article (on the ‘blog’ page if you are listening to the podcast).

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