Motivation – The Pursuit of Subconscious Needs


Connect with what motivates emotions, thoughts and actions 

Due to the highly protective and social nature of our brains, humans have basic needs beyond physical survival. They have been described as “present among all humans, and their violation or enduring nonfulfillment leads to impairments in mental health and well-being” (Grawe, 2007). These neuropsychological needs motivate most of our intuitive thoughts and behaviours, and understanding them and their influence helps us to better understand why we, and the people around us, think, react and behave in the ways we do.

Working mostly (and permanently) at a subconscious level, humans have five basic motivating needs that shape and form each person’s goals, emotional state and behaviours, often becoming most apparent and guiding decision making and reactivity in times of stress. They are:

  • Physical, social and psychological safety, crucial for survival and prioritised above anything else, no matter how rational or irrational threats may seem to be.
  • Attachment, being the maintenance of satisfying and emotionally safe relationships. This need arises from our need to belong to, be accepted by, contribute to and be protected by others from birth until death. In evolutionary terms, individuals who did not maintain relationships were unlikely to survive in hostile environments, leaving those genetically disposed to form and maintain them to pass their genes on to us.
  • Orientation and Control, being the understanding and familiarity we have of the world around us, physically, behaviourally and emotionally, as well as the influence we have over it. This need gives rise to our desire for a level of autonomy and independence (and interdependence) and the very human need for sense-making, along with the distress created when people are treated unfairly or subjected to things that are out of their control.
  • Pleasure-seeking and pain avoidance. Our brains are preprogramed to seek things that it feels will create pleasurable feelings either through imagination, experience or genetic programming (eg sex drive), and to preserve life.
  • Self-esteem enhancement and/or protection. Developing from around the age of 3, based on the feedback they receive from their environments, people develop a sense of themselves and of social place, balancing, moderating and driving internally and socially competitive or compliant behaviours. This is a driver of ambition and achievement, working closely with the other three basic needs to motivate behaviours that are perceived to increase, or protect, social recognition, identity, status and power, according to the type and level required by each individual.

What happens when motivational needs aren’t met

When needs aren’t satisfied (not too little, not too much) people feel an imbalance which they are deeply motivated to do something about. Where they feel they can take steps to resolve the difference they respond positively and are well-placed to concentrate, engage with others and think clearly in order to solve the problems that they perceive, mostly subconsciously, to meet their challenge. This is called “Controlled incongruence” and, when linked to organisational goals and culture, is a great motivator for the highest levels of personal performance and the most desirable behaviours.

When needs aren’t satisfied and people feel they cannot take the steps or don’t have the resources meet the challenges they face (or the penalty for failure is too high), their reaction is typically one of  distress through a feeling of powerlessness or lack of control. Symptoms include withdrawal, gossip, blame-shedding, absences, disengagement, militancy, distrust, dishonesty and resignations. Clearly, understanding what people need more and less of (they may not know it themselves), along with empowering them to influence their work and work environment, is a big predictor of social & organisational harmony, stability and success, along with the personal well-being of everyone in and around it.

Needs satisfaction in the workplace

We have exclusively developed a quick test for the purpose of exploring personal needs and their satisfaction in the workplace. We recommend it as an insight into the deepest of employee motivations and to enable employees and their supervisors (as appropriate and permitted)  to quickly understand why they are happy or unhappy in a current or past role. In doing so, it also allows employers to better design workplace environments, cultures, roles, and management methods so they best meet the needs of “ideal” employees, enabling superior engagement, loyalty, discretional effort, collaboration, positive problem solving, workplace culture and, ultimately, organisational performance. 

Naturally, this quick and easy assessment forms a part of our exclusive Behaviourally-Predictive Recruitment method and assists with our Resilience Coaching and Executive Neurocoaching services.

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Related links

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