The best performance equation that I know is simply this:
Performance = Capability x Behaviour.
In the 21st Century, a leader’s job is to influence the behaviour element of the equation and create the environment where people can show up each day and do their best work, without burning out. It’s as simple and as difficult as that. By influencing people’s behaviour, we are directing where they focus their time, attention and effort and the quality of work that they do. Add to this, we want people to feel engaged and enthused, so we don’t lose these people that we have set up for success.
But what does this have to do with understanding people’s needs?
Why do we need to understand people’s needs?
As you’ll see in this article, understanding needs is key to understanding and influencing behaviour. It is key in changing behaviour.
Much of behavioural research focusses on the premise that all of our behaviours are designed to satisfy a need. In it’s most simple terms, if I am hungry (I have a need for food), I will search for something to eat. Or if I am bored (I have a need for stimulation), I might pick up my phone and start scrolling my social media feed. For these things, the drive to fulfil our needs seems quite obvious. With the food example, our need is a physical one while the boredom example is more psychological. However, in the workplace, it gets more complicated when we think about the intersection of psychological and social needs.
"all of our behaviours are designed to satisfy a need"
Flawed Strategies for Meeting our Needs
As simple as those examples are, we don’t always meet our needs in the most effective way. There are two types of strategies that we use in order to fulfil our needs: Effective Strategies and Flawed Strategies.
Effective Strategies involve meeting our needs in a way that doesn’t hurt us or those around us. In the simple examples above, I can meet my need for food by eating something nutritious and healthful, which would be an effective strategy. I could meet my need for stimulation by engaging in a meaningful conversation with someone close to me.
But we don’t always engage in effective strategies.
Flawed Strategies involve me meeting my immediate need, but compromising a different need, or maybe having a negative effect on someone else’s needs. If I fulfill my need for food with something unhealthy, I compromise my need for long term health. If, when I am bored, I interrupt or annoy someone else, I might be compromising their needs, and maybe damaging my own need for positive relationships in the process
As we go through the different types of needs, it will become evident how we implement Effective or Flawed Strategies every day.
"Flawed Strategies involve me meeting my immediate need, but compromising a different need"
Three Types of Needs
There are three types of needs we should consider:
Basic Needs – things we need to survive, to feel safe and to be fulfilled and happy.
Performance Needs – the conditions under which we can perform at our peak. In the 21st Century, this means being able to think at our best, instead of going through the motions, and to be able to exhibit self-control and emotional control, so we can increase our productivity.
Higher Needs – as our sense of self develops and we grow personally, we tend to want to express our basic and performance needs at a higher level.
Let’s unpack each of the three categories of needs
Our basic needs affect our survival, our sense of worth and our fulfilment. If our Basic Needs aren’t met, it can be a recipe for a disaster. Our brains are built for survival, and Basic Needs are ingrained in our Monkey Brain in order to survive.
Our brains developed to be highly sensitive to threats to our survival, to protect us from predators and danger. However, another important survival consideration was our social environment, and it is this survival mechanism that is still drives most of our behaviours today. Most of us don’t need to worry about finding food, shelter and protecting ourselves from predators, but these social cues still trigger the survival mechanisms in our brain.
Our Five Basic Needs:
- Loving and Belonging
There are many iterations of our Basic Needs. Through a review of the research, this is what I have landed on. It is most closely tied to William Glasser’s Choice Theory.
Some of them seem obvious, some are more obscure. Some you will likely proclaim: “that’s not one of my needs!” But you’d be wrong. Everyone seems to need each of these to varying degrees. They each have a primal meaning as well as a more 21st Century meaning. Let me unpack them.
"Our basic needs affect our survival, our sense of worth and our fulfilment. If our Basic Needs aren’t met, it can be a recipe for a disaster"
This one is simple. It includes our physical safety and our ability to get the necessary resources to stay alive. But there are present day nuances to this: It might also include finding a place to live once your lease runs out, finding a job if you’re out of work, or dealing with an illness. Survival trumps all the other needs. If your survival is under threat, it will take precedence to everything else.
This need tends to get people riled up as they proclaim they don’t need power. Our primal need for power most likely comes as an ability to dominate resources, or have others be subservient. But, for most people, today’s version is different (although you probably know people who are still holding onto the primal instinct). Today, Power is about achieving, having control over your future, being valued, being valuable and influencing people. It is also about a sense of agency – being able to affect your outcomes towards your goals.
Freedom is about not being controlled or constrained. While it means many different things to different people, It is about having choices and feeling autonomy in your life.
This is another need that people find hard to reconcile. But think about what life would be like with no enjoyment? Fun is about laughter, enjoyment, doing things that make you feel good and pleasure. This could even be facing a stimulating challenge or learning something new.
Loving and Belonging:
Along with Survival, this need doesn’t seem to get much push-back. Everyone knows that it is important for our happiness, wellness and fulfilment to feel that we have people around us that we are comfortable with and that accept us for who we are.
The Strength of Our Basic Needs:
To illustrate just how important these basic needs are, consider the following research.
- Those in retirement homes that have a choice about things such as the colour of their curtains, visiting hours and the view from their apartment, live up to seven years longer than those who don’t.
- A strong social circle and closeness to family is one of the markers of the ‘Blue Zones’ inhabitants who live disproportionately longer than the average population.
- If you earn $100,000 in a neighbourhood where most people earn $50,000 you’ll report being happier and more fulfilled than if you live in a neighbourhood where most people earn $200,000.
People do what they can to meet their needs:
In a lot of ways, our behaviours are merely strategies, designed to help meet our needs. There are two types of strategies, as mentioned earlier: Effective Strategies, and Flawed Strategies.
An effective strategy to meet my Power need, might be to teach someone else how to structure a report they are trying to write. This is effective, because it satisfies my need as well as (likely) satisfying a need for them, and also building our relationship.
A flawed strategy to meet my Power need, might be to take the report from that person and do it myself, because they aren’t doing it to my standard. As you can tell, this is flawed because, while it helps me meet my need, it likely compromises the other person’s needs. On top of this, it probably compromises another of my needs for Loving and Belonging, as it damages our relationship.
If we can help people meet their needs, we take them off the table as reasons to feel disengaged. We also prevent the need to implement flawed strategies to meet their needs. As stated before, quite often, when people feel their needs aren’t being met, they are in an agitated state and will engage in Flawed Strategies to right the ship.
"If we can help people meet their needs, we take them off the table as reasons to feel disengaged"
The second set of needs we should understand are people’s Performance Needs. We define Performance Needs as the conditions under which people can do their best work. Their ‘best work’ looks something like this:
- The ability to think critically Vs acting on auto pilot or emotion.
- The ability to get out of the comfort zone Vs going through the motions.
- The ability to engage in effective behaviours Vs unproductive behaviours.
These Performance Needs are very similar to Basic Needs, with a more work-focussed slant. They are:
You’ll notice that Autonomy and Status are very closely linked to Freedom and Power, but more specific to the workplace. Belonging is also virtually identical to the Basic Need of Loving and Belonging. Consistency is a different variable, but absolutely critical to help people perform.
The research shows that when people believe that they have these four needs fulfilled, it helps them to do their best thinking, control their emotions and behaviours, and be deliberate and mindful in their actions. However, if people feel that they do not have these or – even worse – if they have them taken away, then they can easily choose Flawed Strategies to get them back in balance, or disconnect completely and become apathetic.
Let’s unpack each of these.
When people feel a sense of control, they do better work. When they feel they have some agency over their outcomes and ways of working, they tend to give more effort and produce better outcomes. Autonomy can be just about feeling heard, it can mean having buy-in and ownership, it can mean taking on more responsibility, not being micromanaged, and developing skills that help them do even more.
While Loving and Belonging is a Basic Need, people also want something similar in the workplace. When people feel like they belong, the research tells us that effort increases and perception of effort decreases. When people feel safe, they have a greater ability to contribute, and when they feel like they are contributing to a goal that is bigger than themselves, they work with more commitment. Another driver of Belonging, which is often overlooked, is having a set of rules and standards that are unique to the team.
People find it hard to perform at their best, when things are changing around them constantly. Because change is a constant variable in the workplace, it means that leaders need to find ways to show people consistency amongst the chaos. But consistency is not just about ‘sameness’ – it is also about the perception of fairness and delivering on expectations. Finally, a big contributor to consistency is the degree to which our actions match our spoken intentions.
Status is simply our feeling of value relative to other people. In the workplace, we compromise people’s status when we put them down, take work off them, or fail to listen to their views. We give people status by expanding their skillset, praising them for their work that contributes to the team’s goals, or by simply showing we appreciate what they do. While we often think of status as promotions, pay grades and controlling resources, these other, simple gestures are often just as status-inducing for our team.
"The research shows that when people believe that they have these four needs fulfilled, it helps them to do their best thinking, control their emotions and behaviours, and be deliberate and mindful in their actions"
The Strength of Our Performance Needs:
As I stated earlier, the degree to which people feel their Performance Needs are, or aren’t, being met can have a huge impact on people’s work performance. Consider the following:
- If you think about someone who you feel is controlling, you lose 10 points of effective IQ on a subsequent intelligence test
- When we don’t deliver on expectations people experience an enormous drop in dopamine which is the chemical that keeps us motivated
- Students that are treated as ‘inferior’ to their classmates, perform below average on subsequent maths tests
As for Basic Needs, people often seek out their needs if they are not being met, and – because people lack awareness of these – this often manifests in a Flawed Strategy, that is counterproductive to what we would like them to do.
Consider the staff member who doesn’t feel any ownership over a change process, so they dig their heals in and refuse to change in order to hold on to consistency.
Or the person that does the bare minimum, because they believe the bonus system is unfair, and now they are balancing the transaction with less work output.
Then there is the person that might put others down to gain status because they are lacking status elsewhere in their work or life, or the negative person that recruits other negative people to bolster their sense of belonging (and maybe status as well).
We need to understand what these needs mean to each person and our team, and make sure their Performance Needs are being met in the workplace.
Fulfilling Performance Needs goes hand in hand with executing on the 10 High Impact Leadership Behaviours.
The term Higher Needs implies that someone has transcended the Basic and Performance Needs ... but that is not necessarily the case. Higher Needs can be desired even before Performance Needs are met and Basic Needs can also be sacrificed in favour of Higher Needs.
Our Higher Needs describe three things that provide fulfilment through the process of doing. They are:
Humans have an inbuilt desire to learn. And the ultimate expression of that learning is to exhibit mastery.
When we are young, we are learning machines and, unfortunately, the process of learning becomes a chore for most people around school age, where it becomes something we have to do (yes, the irony is not lost on us).
Mastery is the ultimate in our learning drive. It is the desire and intrinsic motivation to learn as much as possible about a subject and then perfect it as an art. This might be tax law, surfing or coaching – it doesn’t really matter what the topic is, when we find ourselves pulled toward it and trying to learn as much about it was we can, then we have found ourselves driven by Mastery.
Similarly to Mastery, Growth is about learning and improving. It is almost like the cousin of Mastery, but in a broader way. Growth is about expanding our skillset, understanding more about ourselves and putting ourselves in challenging situations so that we come out better afterwards. We might be nervous and part of us will often feel uncomfortable, but the desire to learn and grow is the greater driver.
Ultimately, we all have an innate drive to do things for the betterment of the collective. While this drive is often not expressed, it is sometimes uncovered after our path to Mastery – we begin to think ‘how can I apply this in a new way that benefits others?’
When Angela Duckworth explains finding purpose in her landmark book, Grit, she explains it as a journey, not an immediate discovery. The journey goes like this: try a lot of different things, take an interest in one, become more interested as you learn more and improve your skills, form the desire for mastery, apply your skills to benefit others. This is the process of purpose.
Working with People:
Wants Vs Needs
Wants and goals are usually expressions of needs. If a team member wants more time working from home, they’re expressing their need for Freedom or Autonomy. If they are after a promotion or more money, they might be expressing a need for Status or Power.
Likewise for goals. Behind every goal is a Need wanting to be met. If I have a goal to complete my part of a project at a really high level, the need I am trying to satisfy might be a need for power, status or even for belonging.
The good news about this, is that there are often more ways to satisfy their need other than just the ‘want’ that they are telling you about in the moment. There might be different ways of gaining Autonomy, other than working from home, and there might be different ways that people can have a sense of power rather than just getting a promotion. Knowing this can help you problem solve with the team member if you are finding it hard to find common grounds in accommodating their ‘wants.’
"Behind every goal is a Need wanting to be met"
Performance Conversations Vs Development Conversations
Performance Conversations are about goals and wants.
Development Conversations are about needs.
We should be having more of the Development Conversations, but instead, we end up having Performance Conversations.
The challenge for leaders is to understand people’s needs. By understanding people’s needs, we can shape their goals, responsibilities and development. We can also connect to our people in a way that shows compassion and a genuine care for their growth, wellness and performance. And, in this way, we can better influence their behaviours.
Do you know what each of the needs means to your team as a collective and to your team members individually?
If you do an honest audit, is there anything you are doing that might compromise any of these needs?
If you reflect on any negative or unproductive behaviours from your team, might they be explained by those people trying to fulfil a need?
What can you do to better fulfil these needs for your team?