, Why we do the things we do…

Why we do the things we do…

October 29th, 2019 Posted by Leadership Coaching, Life Coaching, Performance Coaching

If you’ve read the opening chapter of my book, you may remember me describing an incident where I was inadequately, and some might say unnecessarily, defending myself in a boardroom. This wasn’t the first time I embarrassed myself with that kind of behaviour, and it wasn’t the last. It took me a while to discover the underlying drivers for the behaviour, but once I did, I was able to make the changes which have helped me become more like the person I want to be.

Underlying every action we take is a driving cause; everything we do is done to meet a psycho-social need. If you’ve ever studied management, you’ve no doubt come across Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

, Why we do the things we do…
I remember sitting in an exam hall drawing the triangle and filling it in from bottom to top to show that I understood this concept. Like everything in life, understanding something is always the first step, but to truly know it we have to apply it to our own lives. Although the management studies have latched onto the Humanistic Perspective of Psychology (of which Maslow was a pioneer), these teachings go far beyond the nine-to-five and have a huge impact on every decision we make. Understanding Maslow’s needs and how they relate to you will help you understand what makes you tick.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory provides a theory of human needs and a theory of human motivation to achieve these needs. He created his hierarchy of needs based on the tendency and likelihood of appearance:

  1. Physiological needs
  2. Safety needs
  3. Belongingness or love needs
  4. Esteem needs
  5. Self-actualisation

These needs were further categorised as deficiency needs (physiology, safety, belongingness and love) and growth needs (esteem and self-actualisation). Maslow’s theory proposed that when an individual is unsatisfied, they are motivated to dominate the next need in the hierarchy. Upon dominating this need, the gratification achieved subsides, further motivating the individual to dominate the next higher need. This cycle continues until all needs on the hierarchy have been met, and the individual achieves self-actualisation.

First off, it’s important to recognise that Maslow got it half right. He did accurately identify the human needs that are in each of us. However, they are not hierarchical; they are in fact competing needs which we often, at an unconscious level, trade off against one another as we go about our daily lives.

In her book Relationship Breakthrough, Chloé Madanes recognises the importance of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and combines these insights with those of John A. Schindler. Schindler, in How to Live 365 Days a Year, proposed that there are six basic needs that all human beings strive for: Love, Security, Creative Expression, Recognition, New Experiences, and Self-Esteem.

Changing the language somewhat, Madanes presents a different version of the six basic needs:

  1. Certainty/Comfort
  2. Uncertainty/Variety
  3. Significance
  4. Love/Connection
  5. Growth
  6. Contribution

Leadership and performance coaching

It is through this model that I started to understand what was driving my behaviour. Let’s explore this model in a little more detail. Madanes refers to the first four needs (Certainty, Uncertainty, Significance, Love) as Needs of the Personality. No matter who you are or what country you live in, we all must meet these needs on some level. How we meet these needs plays a huge role in who we become as a person and how we live our lives.

The last two needs (Growth and Contribution) are called the Needs of the Spirit. Although these needs are necessary for our happiness and fulfillment, not everyone is successful in finding ways to satisfy these needs. Let’s take a closer look at these needs and how they might be driving your behaviour.

Needs of the Personality


Certainty (security, predictability) includes the needs for physical safety and psychological comfort. Everybody wants stability when it comes to their basic necessities: food, shelter or other material resources. Certainty needs are important for survival, for example, the desire for steady employment, health insurance, safe neighbourhoods, and shelter from the elements. I’m sure you’ve seen those survival shows on television—the first thing the contestants do is seek out shelter and a food source.

Often when people cannot control their physical circumstances, they seek a sense of Certainty through a state of mind, such as religious faith or a positive outlook. A year after the devastating Christchurch earthquakes in February 2011, a news report indicated that church attendance had decreased in every major city in New Zealand except one.

You guessed it: Christchurch.

It’s the desire to meet this need that causes people such stress and fear during times of change. People with a high need for Certainty in their lives struggle with change and are reluctant to go too far out of their comfort zone. As a leader, it is important to provide your people with the level of Certainty they need by reinforcing the good job they are doing (find something they’re doing right and build on that).

If any of your staff are struggling, it is possible they are experiencing a level of trepidation about their future with the organisation. And if their need for Certainty isn’t being met by you, they will source it somewhere else—for example, with disgruntled colleagues. Talking with disgruntled colleagues will definitely meet their need for Certainty, because it’s a safe place to rant and they know they’ll be supported.

The level of Certainty people need varies from person to person. Living in a single room drawing unemployment benefits might be enough for one person, whereas another might need to have their mortgage paid off and be making a million dollars a year to feel a proper level of Certainty. Although Certainty is necessary for us all, what makes up this need varies from individual to individual.


The contrasting need of Certainty is Uncertainty or Variety (surprise, conflict chaos, change, instability). We all have the need to be challenged, to exercise our body and emotions. Some people may seek Uncertainty through a number of ways: stimuli, change of scene, physical activity, mood swings, entertainment, food, etc. How boring would your life be if you were certain about everything you did? This was the basic premise of Michael Douglas’s character in the movie The Game.

We need Uncertainty in our lives to challenge us, to help us grow our comfort zone. People with a high need for Uncertainty in their lives are always looking for the next big challenge. During a restructure, they are looking for the opportunities. ‘It’s about time!’ they say, and ‘Bring it on!’ They’re not content living a life where everything is mapped out.

Many people with this mindset are entrepreneurs or adventurers and shake up their lives in different ways to meet this need. If you’ve got someone like this on your team and they are signalling to you they are getting bored and need a challenge, it’s wise to listen. It that need isn’t being met by you, they will seek it somewhere else… potentially with a new company. Your organisation might be a terrific place to work, the pay might be great, and the team might be really close. but sometimes that’s not enough for those seeking variety. They need to be stimulated and challenged.

Just as a level of Certainty is important for us to function day in and day out, it’s the excitement that comes from new challenges in life that makes us feel alive, that we’re growing. As with Certainty, people meet their need for Uncertainty in different ways. Watching the news or eating at a new restaurant might be enough for some, whereas others seek out a different kind of variety like extreme sports or taking on short-term work contracts at different organisations.

Certainty and Uncertainty work in balance with each other. Even those with a high need for Certainty need some kind of Uncertainty for stimulation, while living in a state of Uncertainty all the time can be pretty exhausting.


The next need we have is the need for Significance, the need to feel important. The need for Significance starts out when we are very young and all want to be seen as special. Children often compete with one another to stand out and gain their parent’s affection and praise. It’s not uncommon for people to constantly compare themselves with others in order to feel superior in some way.

There are generally three ways people meet this need for Significance. The first is making themselves feel important by belittling someone else’s achievement or berating them in public. Others meet this need by being the loudest, the funniest or the most inappropriate. When an individual is feeling insignificant, the quickest way to achieve Significance is to lose their temper, to shout and become aggressive. Immediately the attention is on them (and only them!), and they achieve a sense of importance in that moment. Although this is a dysfunctional approach, the person unconsciously achieves their goal.

If you’re thinking this is what drove some of my behaviours during that board meeting, you’re spot on!
The second way of achieving Significance is by putting yourself out there in a positive way: by achieving great things, giving your energy for the benefit of another, becoming a role model or overcoming a seemingly insurmountable challenge.

Lastly, many people meet their need for Significance in neutral ways. People who want to stand out from the crowd might get tattoos and piercings in unusual places. They’ll dress a little differently or have out-of-the-norm hair colouring or styles.

It’s key to remember that individuals can also meet their need for Significance by talking about problems they seem to derive more pleasure complaining about than overcoming. Anytime someone does something to draw attention to themselves deliberately, they are possibly feeling a need to be recognised.

As a leader, it is easy to meet this need in others simply by praising, as Dale Carnegie recommends, heartily and often. Of course, praise has to be honest and specific, and it’s important to always look for the positive even in a seemingly negative situation.


As with all the needs, the need for Love or Connection (warmth, tenderness, desire) varies from individual to individual, but everyone has a need for connecting with others in their lives. Some people need others around them all the time; they are involved in lots of different groups and events and have a high disposition towards social engagements. At the other end of the spectrum are those who are happy to be mostly on their own. Every now and again they’ll mingle or be part of a club, but their need is far below that of the social butterfly.
Some people rarely experience Love, but meet their need through other relationships, whether through work or the community.

You may remember the important role the desire for love and acceptance plays in the formation of the personality.

That need is a major driver in our lives.

Even though some people might push others away and seem like they do not want to be close to anyone, this is often a basic defence mechanism to protect them from getting hurt. These people are often driven by fear.

Needs of the Spirit


Growth is a necessary part of life; if we’re not growing, we’re dying. Growth is also synonymous with change. Everything changes in life. We grow from infants to children, from adults to old age. Because Growth is synonymous with change, it contrasts with Certainty.

Growth can be achieved in any aspect of our lives, spiritually, physically, or academically. One of the best ways to grow is to try something new and gain the experience firsthand.

Another way we meet the need for Growth is through the surprises life brings us. Life is a variable event, and it comes with different challenges. Some people have experienced tremendous growth through trauma or life-changing experiences like moving to a new country or having a baby. These experiences have stretched them, challenged them, and forced them to dig deeper to overcome the situation.


Many people believe that Growth is driven by the desire to contribute. There is no greater act of kindness than going beyond our needs to help others. Everyone can contribute in some way, such as donating time to a charity, mentoring a child, planting trees, or getting involved in a community project.


This article is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of “First, Lead Yourself” by Cillín Hearns. A special thanks to the very talented Kim Quirke for the illustrations used in this post and for the book.


If you’d like to know more about how your human needs can impact your decisions, or if you’d like to explore how coaching can help you become a better leader (of others or yourself!), or even if you’re just generally curious about what professional coaching can offer you, please contact us at any time for a free consultation.

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