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The 6 Human Needs

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As part of a talk on ‘Dealing with Difficult People’, I gave at EMCORE Hong Kong this year, I spoke about the 6 Human Needs and how they determine behaviour. This was all in the context of dealing with difficult colleagues and the potential psychopathic behaviour we sometimes see. The key here was that, although their behaviour is unacceptable and should not be tolerated, it is OUR behaviour that we can control. Being able to do this, has significant beneficial effects for us.

The human needs are not new. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes from a paper produced in 1943 “A Theory of Human Motivation”. It looks at the human needs that drive us. Maslow described the needs as occurring in a hierarchical fashion ie., the most basic needs being fulfilled first before we can move on to the higher needs. We now realise that these needs can overlap.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The needs as described by Maslow were divided into three groups:

  1. Our Basic needs
    1. Psychological needs: The needs for survival ie., food, shelter, water etc.
    2. Safety Needs: These include our need for personal, emotional and financial security as well as physical wellbeing.
  2. Our Psychological needs
    1. Social Belonging: Our ability to belong, to connect with others. This can be large or small groups. It can be family. This need can be very strong ie., those in abusive relationships, that stay in them(although this is quite complex).
    2. Self Esteem: This is about the need most humans have to be respected.
  3. Our Self-Fulfilment needs
    1. Self Actualisation: This refers to the realisation of our full potential
    2. Transcendence: Giving ourselves to something beyond ourselves.

Although there has been some challenge to these needs, they still hold true. A few years ago I listened to a variation of these needs. An adaptation that looked at how these needs drove behaviour. Anthony Robbins, a behavioural influencer, spoke about the 6 human needs. Understanding the human needs, allows us to understand what drives others towards their behaviour and more importantly, what drives us in our own behaviours. That understanding allows us to control our responses. It allows us to not let others ‘push our buttons’, it allows us to understand why we have the visceral response we do.

Why is this important?

Burnout, psychological disease, suicide are a part of our society and a part of our workplace unfortunately. Suicide is the one cause of death that continues to increase. We all respond differently to situations and its that response that determines how we feel about things. It’s not what people say or do to us, that’s important, its how we interpret and react to it. It is our heart attack, our dissatisfaction in our workplace and it is our stress that we can potentially control with an understanding of this. I’m not saying that its okay for people to behave badly, it’s definitely not and should not be tolerated. However, we may not be able to acutely control their behaviour, but we can control our own, if we understand where that behaviour comes from.

What are the 6 Human Needs and How do they Work?

These needs control our behaviour. We all have the same human needs, however the importance we place on each of the needs dictates, together with our beliefs, values and the rules we’ve set for our lives how we respond behaviourally.

Let’s look at each of the 6 needs and how they can affect behaviour.

They are:

  1. Certainty
    • We all have a need for certainty. This relates back to Maslow’s basic needs of food and shelter and safety, but goes beyond this to the emotion that certainty provides. An example is; “Have you ever watched a movie more than one? Why?” Because we are certain of the way it makes us feel.
  2. Uncertainty or Variety
    • This relates to a need we have for variety. if we knew exactly what was to happen, when etc., life would be unbearable.
    • Who might value this need highly? Think of entrepreneurs, thrill-seekers etc.
  3. Significance
    • This relates to Maslow’s ‘Esteem’. It’s about our need to feel important, to feel respected, to feel that we have something of value to contribute. We all value this need. One of peoples’ greatest fears, is that they are not enough.
  4. Connection +/- Love
    • This relates back to Maslow’s ‘love and belonging’. Our ability to belong or connect with others. We may not have love, we can just have connection.
  5. Growth
    • The ability for us to grow, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. The lack of growth or progress can rob us of fulfilment. It relates back to Maslow’s need for us to reach our full potential.
  6. Contribution
    • This is   our way of making a difference, of contributing to something outside ourselves.

They are the 6 needs, based on Maslow’s needs.

Let’s look at a how these needs may be met negatively:

This person holding a gun to your head is CERTAIN you will do as he says. Do you believe he feels SIGNIFICANT? Absolutely! He also has CONNECTION with the victim, not love but connection. There may also be a little uncertainty here, as to what the outcome might be.

This is a negative example of the needs being met.

What about a colleague acting badly. A work colleague that may bully and speak poorly to people, but does important work.(Let’s use a recent example in the media of Neurosurgeons allegedly bullying junior staff and nurses, throwing scalpels in theatres etc.). This person will be CERTAIN that they will get the response they want from you, or at least get a response when acting in this way. They feel SIGNIFICANT when they throw a tantrum and everyone quietens down and does what they say. They feel significant due to their work and/or position and this is coupled to the rules they set themselves for how they expect other people to behave towards them, even if their behaviour is bad. In a negative way they have a CONNECTION. They may not grow but they do make a CONTRIBUTION.

Let’s compare this with a positive example of the needs:

Mother Teresa: She may be an extreme example. She set up houses for the dying, soup kitchens and orphanages. Certainty may have played a part in her behaviour. She was CERTAIN that she had to try and make a difference, however, the most important needs were LOVE and CONNECTION, GROWTH and CONTRIBUTION became her drivers. Although she found significance, it did not appear to be a driving influence.


What about another prominent figure:

This prominent figure is controversial and may not have everyones approval, but is driven by a defined set of needs. He has CERTAINTY that he is the leader of one of the great democracies and can put forth change. He is also certain that he will get a response to his behaviour. He may also be driven by UNCERTAINTY, as an entrepreneur/business man he would have to be. Add to that that he is sometimes uncertain what his actions will result in, this may be an important need for him. He is definitely driven by SIGNIFICANCE and he does have a CONNECTION, although not always positive. He may or may not have growth, but does believe that he is making a CONTRIBUTION, which may sometimes drive him to the point of not backing down.


Try it for yourself

These needs are important. They control a lot of what we do.

Healthcare workers will have a need for significance, growth and contribution as major drivers. Add to that connection and certainty that they make a difference and you have the recipe for behaviour. Now the skill is in determining what each person’s major needs are and what drives them. Where is their emphasis? This helps us predict their behaviour. It helps us more importantly, to predict ours.

Try this for a time and see how you go. If you get good at this, it’s a great skill to have in your life.

I’ll be speaking more about the drivers of human behaviour at EMCORE Melbourne and in future blogs.

Peter Kas

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