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. They are:

  • Attachment
  • Self-esteem enhancement or protection
  • Orientation and control
  • Pleasure seeking and pain avoidance

Self-esteem enhancement and protection is a higher-order need that develops with maturity (as we gain our sense of self), whilst the other three are deeply embedded in the limbic complex. Over-riding and underpinning these needs, and linked and expressed throughout, is our need for safety – firstly physically (survival complex), and secondly in protecting and preserving the satisfaction of all of our motivational needs in the ways and to the extents that each of us uniquely (but commonly) require.



attachmentStemming from our need for social acceptance for safety and survival, attachment can be expressed though love, belonging, acceptance and place.
birth, people need to be able to bond with others, and to build and to maintain stable relationships. The inability to form attachments leads to solitary, unsocial and uncooperative behaviours, often associated with psychological distress and debilitating maladaptations. Violations of attachment such as betrayal, abandonment and abuse create distrust and resentment, often fostering destructive behaviours such as withdrawal or revenge (flight or fight), with at times disastrous consequences.

Workplaces, businesses and other organisations that are inclusive in how they think about and engage with employees and customers are more likely to attract and retain their trust and loyalty, placing them in a superior position strategically, morally and socially. As a result, it is highly desirable that workplaces seek to satisfy, as may be appropriate and realistic, some of the attachment needs of their employees and customers. Scientifically speaking, relationships matter.


Self-esteem Enhancement & Protection

Every human needs to feel a level of self-esteem as a part of their search for personal identity, social acceptance and perhaps even existential meaning. A human with poor self-esteem may either have very low self-worth, and therefore poor self-motivation and intrinsic happiness, or may be constantly looking for the approval of others in order to overcome self-doubt, which often results in a lack of authenticity, an unwillingness to adopt and retain meaningful values, an inability to form deep relationships, over-competitive behaviours, boastfulness and pretension – all of which feed the self-doubt and low self-esteem that fostered these behaviours.

Leaders, organisations and brands that do not act to support the self-esteem of employees or customers are unlikely to be seen as fair, respectful or appealing to work for, buy from or be associated with.


Orientation & Control

Humans have a need for orientation (how they understand and relate to
their environments) and control (how they influence themselves or others in order to shape their personal environment). People need to know where they are in relation to that environment (personally, socially and purposefully), and where they are going according to those same criteria. Imagine the difference in comfort of being blindfol157738996
ded and taken to an unknown destination by people you don’t know compared to you driving a car along a route you know accompanied by people you know to a destination you are familiar with.

Organisations that do not allow employees and customers to make their own decisions and go about their activities in ways of their own choosing (within reason) violate their need for control, whilst those that act unpredictably, do not communicate well and make changes without adequate consultation violate their need for orientation. Typical results include distrust, relationship breakdown, disengagement and withdrawal, along with general unrest in the workplace social system.


Pleasure Seeking & Pain Avoidance

The dual needs of pleasure seeking and pain avoidance have served through our evolution as survival guideposts both physically and psychologically. The brain rewards us with pleasant sensations as a signal that an action is likely to help us to survive, and reacts with alarm when pain threatens due to it presenting a risk to our survival. Our life experiences, through the pleasure and pain they are associated with, shape our neural circuits to create a complex network of beliefs, triggers 546806084and patterns that work largely subconsciously to shape our view of the world, reactions (including protection mechanisms) and expectations.

In this way, workplace behaviours, performances and feedback, on practical and social levels, quickly become associated with pleasure and pain, encouraging employees to behave and act in the ways that are the safest and most neuropsychologically satisfying. Organisations that promptly, strongly and consistently link desirable employee behaviours and actions to neuropsychological rewards are most likely to see them repeated and replicated, shaping a purposeful, productive and rewarding workplace culture. It goes without saying that customer decisions are also heavily influenced by pleasure seeking and pain avoidance, linked closely to the two emotions advertisers most often try to appeal to – fear and hope.


What happens when 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 performance and the most desirable behaviours.

When needs aren’t satisfied and people feel they cannot take the steps or don’t have enough influence to meet the challenges they face, 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 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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