The Case for Understanding One’s Core Psychological Needs

It is an accepted truth that part of what helps someone be successful in a group, including at work, is self-awareness. And for anyone who is a leader—someone who needs to get things done with and through others—that requirement is amplified. The more power a person has, the more extreme their impact will be, for better or for worse. For example, there is a huge difference between the effect of your boss rolling their eyes at something you say and the effect of your colleague doing the same thing.

Values work is an important part of a self-awareness learning journey. Part of the work I do in coaching senior leaders is to help them to articulate and share their values so their people are not left guessing. We examine values as those things that are important to us. Values are what we use to create rules and standards for ourselves and others. And even though many people know what their values are, they are often kept private.

Terrific headway has been made in building appreciation for the importance of values, but there is something just as important to identify that almost no one is talking about: core psychological needs. These core needs are the driving force of our personalities. We are energized when our core needs are met and stressed when they are not. I would argue it is critical that we each understand our own core needs in addition to our values so that we may provide a more complete picture of who we are and what drives us as a leader.

Different from general human needs

Core needs are different from general human needs. Abraham Maslow established a now widely accepted theory that all human beings have a hierarchy of needs, which must be met in a specific order.

According to Maslow, we are hardwired to satisfy the most basic needs such as shelter, air, food, and water. Once those have been satisfied, we are free to then build stability and safety, which are generally represented by a strong and safe family unit.

After safety and stability are in place, the next natural impulse is to seek out groups in which we feel accepted and can build camaraderie. This would meet the need for belonging. Then and only then are we free to meet our esteem needs, which happens when we find a way to contribute to our communities. There is often a great deal of overlap between our need to belong and our esteem needs, as we will naturally seek to belong to groups of people who will recognize our strengths and accomplishments.

The last need in Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization, or the deep desire to be everything we can be. People who have all the other needs dialed in are far freer to maximize the potential they carry within. Self-actualization often takes the form of a search for knowledge, mastery of a skill, devotion to God/service and what we generally think of as self-fulfillment.

A closer look at core needs

In addition to the basic needs we all share, it is also true that each of us comes wired with our own particular flavor of core needs. Researcher Linda Berens examines these needs, beginning with how they are expressed as four temperaments.

In her work creating the new Essential Motivators™ course for The Ken Blanchard Companies®, Berens’s four core temperaments are identified as Fire, Earth, Air, and Water.

  • People of the Fire pattern tend to be improvisers. They want the freedom to choose the next action and respond to the needs of the moment. They seek to have impact and to get results. They want to be graceful, bold, and impressive. They are generally enthusiastic and optimistic. They are often absorbed in the action of the moment and usually oriented toward the present and what is next. They seek solutions that will work now.
  • People of the Earth pattern tend to be stabilizers. They want to have a place to contribute. They hunger for responsibility, accountability, and predictability. They seek to establish and maintain structure and standard operating procedures to make sense of things and provide stability. They protect and preserve, trusting agreements and clear guidelines. They usually look to the past to plan for the future, and they seek practical solutions that will last.
  • People of the Air pattern tend to be theorists. They want to know the theories behind everything before they use them. They want to be competent and to achieve mastery. They seek to understand how the world and things in it work. They see most things as conditional and relative. They are usually oriented to logic and operating principles that provide long-term results. They seek strategic solutions for complex problems.
  • People of the Water pattern tend to be catalysts. They want to be authentic and caring and have meaningful connections. They seek to develop potential, foster growth, bridge different perspectives, and speak to what others really want and need. They are continually searching for identity, meaning, purpose, and authentic connections. They look to the future and tend to be optimistic visionaries, wanting solutions that make the world a better place.

Needs will be met

In my experience working with leaders, I know needs eventually get themselves met whether it is convenient or not. When we find ourselves behaving in ways that feel out of control, in ways that we know will not help us achieve our objectives, that is a core need that is trying to get itself met. When we find ourselves completely burned out and unmotivated, some core need has gone unmet for way too long.

So if we are clear that the choice is not “Do I get my needs met?” but “How will I get my needs met?” needs simply will be met. We can make a choice to understand them well or we can choose to let them rule our behavior in ways that take us, and others, by surprise.

Since being effective in the workplace, especially as a leader, depends on self-awareness, it stands to reason that understanding core needs—our own and those of others—is the best possible first step. Our core needs will cause much less trouble if they are identified and taken care of.

It’s okay to have needs

Because needs are so personal, it can be hard to admit we have them. Having needs can make us feel so terrifyingly vulnerable that we develop a habit of denying them to ourselves—or, if we are aware of them, of trying to hide them from others. Trying to hide our needs never works because everybody sees them anyway. Other people are either politely looking away or teasing us behind our back, so we might as well just get it all out in the open.

That we all have core needs is a simple fact; an undeniable reality.

In the never-ending quest to understand ourselves, we humans have developed countless theories and models to assist us: Karl Jung, Myers-Briggs, astrology, the Enneagram, and the Tarot, to name a few.

Having studied and used each of these with clients, I believe that Temperament Theory, in particular the work of Linda Berens, has been the most helpful for myself and for my clients. Essentially it is a time-tested, proven way for people to understand themselves, how they are different from others, why it matters, and, maybe most crucially at work, what to do about it.

Dr. Berens’s approach lends a solid legitimacy to the inconvenient reality of needs and offers us tools to understand what they are specifically and the impact they have on our behavior. Her Essential Motivators course expands our understanding of what it means to be human. We are complicated, yes, but decades of work have enabled her to express this complexity in a simple and straightforward way.

I have seen it be nothing short of life changing for many of my clients. I hope you will consider it as a part of your self-awareness learning journey, too!

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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