The Six Human Needs and how they impact the choices you make (2024)

The most fundamental aspect of leading others is to first understand the factors that impact your own behavior. By appreciating and learning about the basic human needs that govern the choices you make, not only will you better understand yourself, you will also better understand the people you lead.

Some managers are still of the belief that a few common incentives motivate people – such as money and status – but research shows that we are motivated by a variety of factors and are not as easily swayed as some think.

According topsychologist ChloéMadanes,our behaviour is motivated by the fulfilment of six human needs that go beyond desires and wants.Everybody has these six needs, but the order in which we prioritize them varies from person to person. Our most dominant two needs will determine the choices we make and the action we take, as they are the underlying drivers for achievement. Although these six needs persist throughout life, their relative priority may vary from situation to situation and can change over time.

The six human needs areCertainty, Variety, Significance, Connection, GrowthandContribution.

1. Certainty

We all have a need for certainty, safety, stability and predictability in our lives. We like to feel secure in our jobs, in our homes and in our relationships. We want to avoid pain and we want assurances that our basic needs are being met. Some people pursue this need for certainty by striving to control all aspects of their lives, including the projects they run and the people who work for them. They want to be as certain as possible that things work out the way they planned and that people do as expected and complete their assignments by the agreed deadline. When we lack certainty we tend to panic and get stressed. When things get too certain, however, we feel bored and demotivated.

2. Variety

Another human need – which opposes the first one – is the need for variety and uncertainty. At the same time as we want certainty, we also crave change, excitement and new stimuli. Variety makes us feel alive and engaged. Many project managers work in change management because of the inherent variety it provides. Projects are temporary by nature, and the uncertainty is for the most part tolerable because we know when the project is expected to end and what might happen afterwards. Too much uncertainty, however, will bring us fear, while not enough will cause boredom. So the first two needs are pieces of the same pie. If your need for certainty is 70 per cent, your need for variety will be only 30 per cent. People with a big need for variety may come across as risk-takers and may also seek out conflict and crisis situations to make them feel alive.

3. Significance

Deep down, we all need to feel important, unique and special. We want our life and our work to have meaning, importance and significance. Imagine how uncomfortable it would be to work on a project that is not needed and no one cares about. We can fulfil our need for significance and importance in many ways, positive as well as negative. One vehicle is by becoming a high achiever or by having many people report to us because it makes us feel important, special and wanted. That may also show up as being overly competitive and performance driven. Another, rather poor way to get this need satisfied is to put other people down and to elevate ourselves so that we feel we are better than others. We can also signal our uniqueness and difference through particular clothes or unusual hobbies.

4. Connection

Everybody strives for a level of connection and affiliation with people around them and wants to feel part of a larger community. We want to be loved and cared for and we want a feeling of closeness or union with like-minded people – be it friends, family, colleagues, members of a club or an online community. The need for love and connection is based on blending in and wanting to belong and be similar to others in the group. In some ways we could say that it’s the opposite of significance. If we are 100 per cent connected and part of a team, a project or a culture, we are likely to be encroaching on our need for significance and uniqueness, and vice versa. Many project managers feel this conflict in that they want to be part of the team community, but at the same token they need to differentiate themselves and stand out as the leader of the pack.

5. Growth

As human beings we all have a need to grow and expand in our personal and professional lives. Many people’s goal is to reach a certain position, a financial target or a particular lifestyle, but when they get there, they become stagnant and unhappy because they are no longer growing. They have reached a plateau, and although there are no apparent reasons for why they need to learn and develop, they have an intrinsic desire for doing so. People are most happy when they feel they are making progress. We all need something to strive for, something that will challenge us to grow and expand emotionally, spiritually, physically, financially and intellectually.

6. Contribution

The sixth human need is the desire to make a difference and to contribute to a greater good. This is the need to help, serve and support someone or something bigger than ourselves in a meaningful way. As human beings we have a desire to contribute something of value, whether that is manifested through community, family, society or the project work that we do. Some projects have a very worthy cause and may help to make the world a better place to live, or at least they will have an impact on someone or something else. But when we are head-down managing the detail, we may not always see it. Very few people are mindful of how this aspect can help fulfil one of their most basic needs.

According to Madanes, the way to lasting satisfaction and fulfilment is through the last three needs: the need for connection, growth and contribution. If we attempt to reach fulfilment through certainty, variety and significance alone, we will fall short. The problem with a high reliance on certainty is that no matter how much we seek to control our surroundings, we will never be able to gain complete certainty, as we live in a world of constant change. The issue with significance is that no matter where we look, we will always be able to find someone who is more significant than us. If we let out need for significance dominant we end up as managers who are more concerned with personal reputation than adding value to the client.

The best strategy for lasting job satisfaction and sustained drive is to recognize that your work is part of your purpose and to look at ways in which your needs can be met by the work you do. True leaders are not just doing a job. They are doing a purposeful job that fulfils their need for growth and contribution.

I invite you to examine the six human needs and ascertain which of them you value the most and how you go about meeting them. I also encourage you to ask the same questions with your team members in mind.

  • Which two of the six human needs are most important to you?
  • What are the ways (good and bad) in which you meet and balance these needs?
  • In which ways can you use your profession to satisfy your need for grow and contribution so that you can increase your overall job satisfaction?
  • How can you help each member of your team to fulfill their top needs and increase their level of growth and contribution?

This post is an extract from Susanne's award-winning book "The Power of Project Leadership" (2nd edition).

The Six Human Needs and how they impact the choices you make (2024)


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