Executive Behaviour: how it can be impacted by four critical human needs

Executive Behaviour

Human Needs and How These Affect Executive Behaviour (Part 1 in the Human Needs Series)

If you’re interested in the psychology and human/executive behaviour space, chances are that you’ve already heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

This is a five-tier pyramid model that was proposed by American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, in 1943. Each tier or layer of this model represents a different type of need humans have. Human needs are a vital part of building high performing teams and can have a huge impact on executive bahviour.

At the bottom of the pyramid, you have physiological needs. This covers things like having access to food, water, shelter, clothing, and sleep – all the basic things that humans need to be able to survive and function.

The next layer up from that is safety. Some of these safety needs are more to do with our physical security, like having access to a secure property in a safe area where we are physically protected from danger. Some are more to do with our personal or financial security – for instance, being employed, having a stable income, and having access to the resources we need to be safe and secure. It may also cover things like structure, stability, and control in our day-to-day lives.

Next, we have love and belonging needs. This layer of the pyramid concerns things like our relationships with friends and family, sense of connection with others, and feelings of being loved. Connection and belonging play an important role in empowerment in the workplace.

The second layer from the top is esteem, so things like self-esteem, respect, recognition, and status. This tier also concerns things like how important we perceive ourselves to be, and how significant, powerful, valued, or needed we feel that we are.

Finally, at the top, you have self-actualisation. Essentially, this refers to how fulfilled a person feels – i.e. how well we feel we are living up to our potential. It may also involve a need for growth, feeling that we’re actually contributing something to society, and desire to feel content about where we are in life.

According to Maslow, the lower level needs must be met first before the person is able to progress on to meet their higher level needs. For example, a person would need to have their physiological needs met before they could fulfil their safety needs, and both of these met before they could move on to fulfil their love, esteem, and self-actualisation needs in order.

Although there may be some variation in the order in which these needs are required to be met, depending on the goals, interests, and personal values of an individual, this provides a general guide.

It is interesting to note that these five needs are in fact categorised into two types. The bottom three are deficiency needs, which are defined as essential basic needs. If these are not being met, then we are being deprived in some way which can affect executive behaviour.

By comparison, the top two are less essential, and instead relate to our desire to grow and achieve success as an individual. Although we can survive without these top two needs being met, they should be met for us to feel the most satisfied and fulfilled.

Because these top two needs are perceived to have less importance, they are often given low priority. However, that’s not to say that they are not something that you should be striving to fulfil.

There are a couple of other schools of thought that also exist in personality psychology, and two of them are trait and behavioural theory. In the work that I do as an Executive Coach to Australia’s top executive’s I observe very clear needs patterns amongst executives and the people they lead. For example, there is a consistent pattern of four main human needs. These four needs share some parallels with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but differ slightly, and do not feed into each other directly as Maslow’s do. These four needs are:

  • Significance – the need to feel powerful, unique, important, and needed (manifests itself as competition or a need to always win, denial, pressure, and defensiveness)
  • Control – the need for security, stability, and structure (manifests itself as fear of failure, overthinking, worry, self-doubt, and seeking approval)
  • Belonging – the need for connection and love (manifests as confidence, trust, and acceptance)
  • Contentment – the need for growth, contribution, and serving (manifests as fulfilment, empathy, and inner peace)

As humans, we desire to meet all four of these needs. However, not all people will prioritise the same needs equally. Instead, the priority we give to each need will vary based on our lived experiences, traits, beliefs, and values – all of which influence the lens through which we see the world as individuals.

For example, if you are a business leader, executive, or CEO, you’re more likely to prioritise things like significance and control. As a result, you will be more likely to experience feelings like fear of failure, self-doubt, overthinking, and worry as manifestations of your desire for these needs to be met. You might also find yourself comparing yourself to others constantly, and feeling like you’re not good enough.

By comparison, others may place more value and priority on things like contentment and belonging, which will manifest in the ways that we mentioned above.

As leaders, it is important that we recognise our own prioritisation of these needs. However, we must also recognise and understand the way in which the people we lead prioritise their own needs, as this will allow us to provide multidimensional leadership that is based on their individual differences and needs. For example, rather than telling someone who prioritises control what to do, you would instead ask them for their opinions and input. Likewise, when leading someone who places a high degree of priority on feeling importance, you may disarm them by reinforcing the value that they bring to the team.

Although it is natural for us to allocate higher priority to certain needs, to achieve the greatest sense of inner peace, psychological calm, and state of contentedness, we should instead strive to give each one equal importance and priority. This is one of the things we are going to be looking at in our Human Needs series.

In this series, we are also going to be looking at these four needs in more depth. We are going to be looking at our desire for these human needs, and how they manifest.

If you’re an executive, manager, or business leader who feels like you’re operating in chaos, you may benefit from coaching that not only offers a commercial lens, but a human behaviour and neuroscience lens too. Working with someone who has walked the same path as you can be a great way to learn how to cope with the challenges of business life. This is just one of the services I offer as an executive coach and advisor. You can find out more about my services here.

You may also be interested in the rest of our series on behavioural needs and how these relate to success as an executive. You can find our next post in this series here.





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Caroline Kennedy, author of Lead Beyond 2030: The Nine Skills You Need to Intensify Your Leadership Impact, is an accomplished, award-winning CEO and global thought leader on business and leadership. She is a highly sought-after mentor and coach to top global executives. A respected keynote speaker and author, Caroline’s methods are neuroscience-based to achieve rapid development and growth.


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