Facebook Facebook icon Twitter Twitter icon LinkedIn LinkedIn icon Email


The power of understanding the needs of others 

IbyIMD+ Published 21 June 2022 in Magazine • 14 min read • Audio availableAudio available

Good leaders must uncover the basic human desires of their teams so together they can reach greater heights. Here’s how to do it.


Many leaders struggle with gaining insight into what their teams really want. They find it difficult because the power that comes from their rank and authority often creates a distance and mistrust that prevents people from opening up. This decreases the leader’s motivation to pay sufficient attention to them.  

Yet it is essential for you to uncover what matters to people so that you can become a better leader. It’s a matter of responsibility and of power. As we define it, power is the ability to influence the behavior of others. But what determines this ability? The answer is surprisingly simple. What enables one person to influence another is control over access to resources that the other person values. Take this idea seriously, and you will realize that influencing others in any situation requires answering a not-so-simple question: what do people value? 

We always tell students and executives that you cannot lead people you don’t understand. For leadership to work, you need to motivate people to pursue certain goals and to engage in certain work. They won’t want to put their energy and their best efforts towards a goal they don’t find valuable. So understanding what people want is really the core of the leadership process, and a good leader is very mindful of this.  

Yet being mindful may not be enough to see through the motivations that animate us all as humans. We are complicated! And our desires, the things that we want and need, are multifaceted. They change over time and between individuals. What people wish to pursue may shift depending on the phase of their lives or careers, so it takes a leader’s keen observation and genuine interest in others to make sense of these needs and wants. It also takes a guide through the intricate world of human motivation to discover what people value, and that’s what we offer in our book, Power, for All: How It really Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business 

Such a guide is vitally important because even when you know to ask people what they need they don’t always tell you. But there are things you can do to help yourself. 

The first is to understand that there are some basic things that people reliably want or need, which can point you in the right direction. Once you have established those, your job is to really delve into the particulars of a specific individual or group in a moment in time, and understand how people fulfill those basic needs and wants.

People value more than just money and prestige. Other, more psychological resources also allow people to fulfill the two basic needs for safety and self-esteem

The power issue

From CXOs to Gen Z activists, our experts examine where the real sway lies. In Issue VII of I by IMD, we explore the shifting centers of command and how leaders can inspire, empower and wield influence for good.

The two things that everyone values 

If you look at all that has been written and studied about human motivation and human nature, you find oceans of great thinking and research, from philosophers to neuroscientists, from biologists to psychologists and sociologists. Building on this rich body of knowledge, we have distilled some of the commonalities we observe.  

Our analysis reveals that there are two basic needs that animate every one of us. One is intuitive, the need for safety. We all need to feel protected from harm. The other is self-esteem. We want to feel we are worth something, and that we’re not just one of billions of humans roaming the earth; that our existence means something, matters to someone, that it has value.  

These two drivers of human behavior, the need for safety and the need for self-esteem, are always at play when you lead. They are your anchors. The people you lead will certainly be animated by those two needs. The complication is that how people satisfy those needs changes depending on the situation, and people won’t necessarily reveal how they wish to fulfill these needs—and sometimes they might not know themselves.  

But there are regularities in what people respond to in pursuing safety and self-esteem.  

The six resources people seek to feel safe and worthy 

People certainly value material resources — money and property — because those can buy you safety. Money can also make you feel deserving of esteem because it signals that you’ve done well for yourself. It can make you feel superior to those with less, giving you social status, another resource people value deeply. The appeal of material resources and status is universal. That’s why job security and compensation are important motivators. And that’s why fancy job titles, corner offices, and even purely symbolic recognition, like a “mentor of the year” designation, matter to people: they make them feel special, and therefore worthy. 

But people value more than just money and prestige. Other, more psychological resources also allow people to fulfill two basic needs for safety and self-esteem.  

One of them is a sense of competence and achievement, a feeling that you are doing something well, that you are succeeding, that you’re improving and learning. When you give the people you lead a sense that they’re becoming better at something and that they’re growing in their professional prowess, then you will have influence over them. You will control a resource they value: a feeling of increased mastery, the sense that they’re are accomplishing something. Research shows that this feeling of progress is an important source of motivation for people at work. The manager who can create an environment in which people experience progress will have influence on their behavior.

People also need to feel that they relate to others: they need affiliation. If I feel that people care for me and I care for them, it feeds my sense of safety because the people around me who have affection for me will do their best to protect me. And if they like me and love me, maybe it’s because I’m worthy of love. Gallup has found consistently that the biggest predictor of an employee’s decision to stay in an organization is their positive answer to the question: “Do you have a best friend at work?” Employees value affiliation at work more than many managers recognize. 

People also have a desire for autonomy. They will feel much better about the work they do for you and the organization if you give them a sense that they are in control of their choices. When you feel that you have control over your life, you feel better about yourself because you don’t depend on others. You are worthy of your own decisions. In addition, you feel safer because you can decide for yourself on the best course of action. Employees who perceive their managers as supportive of their autonomy express more satisfaction than those who have little or no control over their work lives. In turn, their satisfaction is reflected not only in better performance evaluations, but also in healthier psyches. Conversely, the lack of autonomy takes a toll on employees’ physical and mental health. Respecting the autonomy of others is what allows managers to motivate their employees, teachers to engage their students, and parents to have children who talk to them. 

Finally, people want to feel worthy from a moral standpoint. We want to feel that we are good human beings. The need for morality and how it manifests varies across culture and time. It is also a matter of personal maturity. But when your employees feel that the work they do matters for something bigger than themselves, that they’re doing things that also benefit others, it feeds a need for morality that we all harbor. Sometimes we suppress and bury it, because we’re so concerned with the material needs of our organizations and our lives that we forget that morality matters to us, too. But fulfilling people’s need to feel that their work is morally good is critical for leaders, and increasingly so. Deloitte’s 2019 Global Millennials survey found that millennials differed from previous generations in their expectations of the business world: around 40% of those surveyed had strengthened or weakened their relationship with a business based on its social impact and ethics.  

What if they won’t tell you what they value? 

These are reliable things that people seek. The question for a leader is, how do they manifest in the people I’m leading right now? Often, leaders are left to their own devices to sort this out because employees may not feel comfortable being open and telling the leader what they really want. And even when they do say what they want openly, they may not have entirely seen through their deepest needs because they haven’t done their own work of introspection and self-awareness.  

To overcome this gap between needs felt and needs expressed, you need to earn people’s trust. And there are two forms of trust that you’re judged on across cultures: competence and warmth 

Competence and warmth connect directly to the basic needs for safety and self-esteem. Competence has to do with whether I can trust your ability to deliver. If I am surrounded by competent people who can reliably produce great work, I will feel that I have access to what I require to feel safe and accomplished, a component of my self-esteem.  

Trust in ability is not the only form of trust we need to feel safe and supported. The other one is warmth, trust in intentions. Can I trust that you mean well, that you’re not going to stab me in the back as soon as I turn around, and that you mean what you say? It’s a different kind of reliance. If you have the right intentions, I feel safe knowing that you have my back. And it also allows me to feel good about myself, because being surrounded by people who care about me is a form of affiliation.  

Putting theory into practice 

If you want to know what people really want and don’t have a good sense of that as a leader, start listening and observing through the lens of the two basic needs for safety and self-esteem and the six resources that help fulfill them — money, status, achievement, affiliation, autonomy, and morality —and you are going to find out a lot more about what people want than what they are willing or able to express. You can count on a combination of these resources mattering to the person in front of you at any point in time. It’s like having a map that allows you to reach your destination faster and better.  

Then you need to decide how you will use this map, and the power it gives you. As a leader, you need to remember, or learn, that it’s not only understanding the people you lead that allows you to use power well. You also need to understand yourself, and that requires self-discovery. What do you want? What resources are most appealing to you to fulfill your own need for safety and self-esteem? And, how will you use the power you have to empower the people you are leading? We hope that Power, for All will help you address these questions and become the kind of leader that you would like to be. Or, even better, the kind of leader others want to be led by. 

How one leader answered the call of his workers 

In Power, for All, we tell the stories of many people who were in a challenging situation and yet uncovered what people uniquely valued in those circumstances. They accomplished fantastic things, not only for the benefit of the company, but also for the benefit of the employees by giving them a better way to do their work and a better way to live. And this can be wonderfully fulfilling, because we spend so much time in our organizations and we need to make that time meaningful.  

One of these stories is particularly informative. It talks about a young manager who graduates with an MBA and gets a job as a strategic advisor to the call centers of the organization employing him. Strategic advisor is not the kind of role that gives you a lot of leverage. It may sound nice because the word strategic makes one feel important. But it’s a role that often comes with zero formal authority, as it did in this case. So, this manager faced the challenge of having to help the call centers do better (and they were not doing well) with no ability to dictate the behavior of the call center agents or manager. He had to influence without authority. He had no capacity to change their compensation because that was fixed at the corporate level. He was really limited in what he could do for them and yet he had to find a way.  

So, he applied our framework brilliantly. If you are at all knowledgeable about call centers, you know one thing: one’s sense of safety and self-esteem flounder in a place like that. It’s hard to feel safe when you have callers yelling at you, and they often do. Nobody calls the call center to say, “Oh, you are all  fabulous! I just called to say I love you.” It’s tough. And you don’t feel that good about yourself because you often cannot make customers happy and you’re not paid very well. It’s tiring and alienating work.  

The newly appointed strategic advisor knew that the employees’ needs for safety and self-esteem were not being met. The question for him was how to fulfill them.  

To answer that question, he started to visit one of the centers to ask questions and figure out what he could do to improve morale. He wasn’t there just to make more money for the company, he really wanted to help. But his questions were met with “pin-drop silence”, as he put it to us, the moment he stepped into the call center. This is where the lack of trust comes into play. He was coming from corporate and the people from corporate most of the time came in their business suits wanting to change things with little regard for the agents’ needs, so nobody would answer his questions.  

But no matter how little authority you have, no matter how guarded the people you’re trying to lead might be at first, there are things you can do to earn their trust, uncover their needs, and do good work.  

Head exploding
Working in a call center, dealing with a constant stream of unhappy customers is enough to make anyone blow their top

Here’s what he did. He started to work from the first call center that he was assigned to one day a week. He would just show up. He swapped business suits for casual attire like everybody else in the call center. And he’d plop himself on one of the desks on the center floor, just to be there and get everybody used to his presence. He was right: social science research clearly shows that we feel warmer toward people we are familiar with and are similar to. That’s because familiarity and similarity decrease uncertainty about someone’s behavior and intentions, making it easier to open ourselves to the relationship.  

At first, the agents were suspicious. “What is he doing here? What does he want?” But sure enough, after a couple of weeks a shift occurred. He was working by himself and before too long the agents felt bad about ignoring him and they started to ask him to join them for coffee, and then lunch. Slowly he broke the ice. As he got to know the agents, he learned a few things about what they would need to do their job better. There was a script to respond to certain customer calls that was badly designed and made it difficult for the agents to satisfy customers. He instantly leveraged his network at corporate to get the script changed overnight. By doing so, he delivered something of value to the agents, which proved to them that they could trust not only his intentions, but also his ability to deliver for them. He did this again and again, as soon as he learned of something he could do to give the agents a sense of achievement and enhance their safety by improving customers’ satisfaction with their work.

No matter how guarded the people you're trying to lead might be at first, there are things you can do to earn their trust, uncover their needs, and do good work

And he did not stop there. By spending more time with the agents, he also learned that most of them had interests and hobbies, side businesses or second jobs that fulfilled them more than their call center job. Maybe they had a little gardening business, or they were good at baking, or they volunteered at an animal rescue center. He suggested to them that, instead of showing the news on the cafeteria’s TV, they could have slideshows or videos of things the agents did outside of work that they were proud of. At first nobody wanted to do any of that. He had to pull teeth. And then, the first agent did it, brought in images of the good side of his life, the version of himself that made him feel good. And at that point the flood gates opened. The call center agents started to bring in aspects of their lives that allowed them to portray themselves as a person worthy of esteem because they did something good or something that they were particularly proficient at.  

All these actions were ways to address the trust problem. The agents now trusted him to have the right intentions and to be able to deliver, and along the way he learned what motivated them. He was super attentive to every little bit of information that he gathered about how he could help the agents and he delivered on it instantly and reliably every time he could.  

In the space of six months, all performance metrics of the call center doubled, and employee engagement measures shot up. He was so good at this that he was asked to reproduce the magic in all of the company’s call centers.


tiziana casciaro

Tiziana Casciaro

Tiziana Casciaro is a Professor of Organizational Behavior and the Marcel Desautels in Integrative Thinking at the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto.

Julie Battilana

Julie Battilana

Julie Battilana is the Joseph C Wilson Professor of Business Administration in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School and the Alan L Gleitsman Professor of Social Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School, where she is also the Founder and Faculty Chair of the Social Innovation and Change Initiative.


Learn Brain Circuits

Join us for daily exercises focusing on issues from team building to developing an actionable sustainability plan to personal development. Go on - they only take five minutes.
Read more 

Explore Leadership

What makes a great leader? Do you need charisma? How do you inspire your team? Our experts offer actionable insights through first-person narratives, behind-the-scenes interviews and The Help Desk.
Read more

Join Membership

Log in here to join in the conversation with the I by IMD community. Your subscription grants you access to the quarterly magazine plus daily articles, videos, podcasts and learning exercises.
Sign up

Log in or register to enjoy the full experience

Explore first person business intelligence from top minds curated for a global executive audience