Basic Human Needs and Leadership


16 Basic Human Needs and Leadership. What do leaders have to know about human nature? Many years ago, I happened to become a CEO of a young IT startup. I didn’t have relevant experience – before that, I had been a CEO of a large manufacturer – but one of the investors knew me personally.

It became quite a challenge for me. At my previous job, I had dealt with different people and different culture. They were the people of discipline. They planned their work, used Gantt charts, and were never late. 

When I took charge of the IT startup, I plunged into a world where nothing seemed to work properly. Everybody was always late. The word “deadline” said next to nothing to these guys. They could stop working and play ping-pong because they were “waiting for inspiration.” 

And I thought to myself – why are we humans so different?

A year ago, I conducted a project in a country where I’d never been before. The team members were people of different culture, religion, and language. And yet it was one of my favorite projects. We seemed to be like-minded, looking at many things from similar perspectives. 

And I thought to myself – how similar we humans are!

So are humans the same or unlike? Do we have more in common than different? 

We all share the same set of sixteen basic needs, yet we are not alike. And every manager should know how they influence people’s behaviour – to be a better leader. Leading people means understanding their motives and factors that influence their behavioru.

Steven Reiss

Steven Reiss was an American psychologist who contributed many original ideas to several psychological theories. In 90’s, he spent some time in a hospital, and, observing the devotion and hard work of the nurses who took care of him, he started thinking about intrinsic motivation. What made these people work hard for relatively little pay?

After conducting studies that involved more than 6,000 people on four continents, professor Reiss came up with these 16 basic desires:

  1. Power, the need for control of will
  2. Independence, the need to be distinct and self-reliant
  3. Curiosity, the need to gain knowledge
  4. Acceptance, – the need to be appreciated
  5. Order, the need for prepared, established, and conventional environments
  6. Saving, the need to accumulate something
  7. Honour, the need to be faithful to the customary values of an individual’s ethnic group, family, or clan
  8. Idealism, the need for social justice
  9. Social contact, the need for relationships with others
  10. Family, the need to take care of one’s offspring and loved ones
  11. Social status, the need for social significance
  12. Vengeance, the need to strike back against another person
  13. Romance, the need for mating or sex
  14. Eating, the need for food
  15. Physical activity, the need for work out of the body
  16. Tranquility, the need to be secure and protected

Reiss’s study revealed that we all, regardless of sex, religion, age, place of birth and living, education, trade, and income level, share the same basic needs or desires. It is a part of human nature. It is the survival toolkit that evolution has provided us with.

Desires define behavior. If we want something, we look for a way to receive it, and it forms our strategies, habits, and worldviews. The so-called reward system makes us listen to and follow our wishes.

But those of us who have ever had a romantic relationship know how hard it is to understand what another person thinks or wants. If we all have the same needs, why we can’t read each other like open books?

Reiss profile

Imagine you have two friends. One of them loves spending her weekends traveling, doing sports, or other outdoor physical activities. Another one is different – he likes to sit all day long in silence, with a book and a cup of tea. 

They both have the same sets of basic needs but prioritise them differently.

For the first friend, need #15, Physical activity, is very important, whereas need #16, Tranquility, holds little significance to her. Conversely, for the second friend, it is the opposite.

Every person has their own profile of desires called the Reiss profile. You can find an example in the picture:

If a need is essential for a person, it’s marked in green, and if it isn’t – in red. Yellow color marks a more neutral attitude to a desire. 

A person whose profile is in the picture is probably a leader. Power, independence, and curiosity are among their high priorities. And they are like your imaginary friend #1 regarding their leisure. They prefer skiing or swimming to lying in bed.

Your subordinates’ profiles

Leading people is the art of putting the goals of an organisation in line with people’s needs. The best leaders give people the belief that they will achieve their individual targets by helping their organisation reach its goals.

Some natural leaders do it intuitively. They “feel” their workers’ motives and aspirations and can always find the words that staffers are ready to listen to. But even gifted leaders may strengthen their skills by applying Reiss’s theory. And those who feel they lack confidence can gain it by employing the Sixteen Basic Needs concept. 

And you don’t need special psychological tests, templates, or the help of HR professionals to use it. If you are a manager, you spend much time with your subordinates discussing different matters (and not only professional ones) with them. So, you may try to build a Reiss profile for every one of your direct subordinates.

If you suppose you don’t have enough data – talk to them, observe their behavior, and ask them questions (without violating their privacy, of course). Try to learn more about them within the boundaries of work etiquette.

Some of the basic human needs, such as Romance, Eating, and maybe, Physical Activity and Tranquility, are irrelevant to this work. So, you may focus on the first twelve ones. And when you collect enough information about which of them are of high importance for your team members, you may ask yourself many essential questions.

Some examples of such questions are below. But please don’t confine yourself to this list. 

  1. Who of your team members is a natural leader? How can you use it to help them reach their goals and solve your work tasks at the same time?
  2. Who of them needs acceptance more than others? How can you support them to help them be productive?
  3. Who among them is more curious than the others? Can you assign them a new project where creativity and open-mindedness are more important than discipline?
  4. Who of them has a pronounced need for Order or Saving? You may use their natural skills in projects where stakes are high, and you need people with cool heads. 
  5. People for whom Family is a subject of great importance are unlikely to be happy to go on long business trips or to move to distant locations.
  6. People with a pronounced need for Social contacts may be good at negotiations.
  7. Employees who value their social status highly are usually more susceptible to criticism. 
  8. Staffers for whom Vengeance is too important may have difficulties with conflict management. So, they may need your special assistance and mentorship when difficult situations occur. 

From more than twenty years of managerial experience, I’ve learned that leadership is more about understanding people than telling them what to do. A leader may have a bright, bold vision, but if her employees’ basic needs contradict it, she won’t be able to realize it. 

A leader is a conductor who helps their musicians become an orchestra. But to do so, she needs to learn as much as possible about their skills, as well as basic needs and intrinsic motives. And Reiss’s sixteen basic needs theory may be of much help.