3 responses to unfulfilled needs

Tom Moriarty says don’t let maladaptive behavior trump abandonment and substitution.

By Tom Moriarty

A key point about motivating people is that all behaviors are influenced by needs. As individuals we do certain things to satisfy our needs. Wise leaders learn to recognize needs and to put people into situations that motivate them.

The relationship between needs and behavior can be illustrated by an example. I like to play golf. I’ve been playing golf since I was six years old. I never got to be a great golfer, but I have a respectable game. Many people share a love for the game of golf; some are very good players, and others are terrible, yet they still play.

If you ask several people why they play golf, you will get several responses: it’s good exercise, it’s fun, it’s an opportunity to hang out with some friends, it’s addicting to work toward lowering a handicap, or perhaps it’s relaxing. In those responses and others, the underlying reason for people to play golf is that it satisfies a need. It may be a need for social interaction, exercise, or simple relaxation. In fact, such an activity can satisfy a number of needs at one time.

In terms of behaviors, we recognize a need that we want to satisfy, and we are motivated to act.

In some cases, we have a need and there is some barrier to our satisfying that need. Maybe there is something my spouse really wants me to do, and I’ve promised to do it. These represent barriers to my need to play golf. When there is a barrier to satisfying a need, there will be some degree of tension that builds up until the need is satisfied or it is replaced with some other need — perhaps the need to stay married.

When a need goes unfulfilled there are typically three responses that can be expected:

  • abandonment
  • substitution
  • maladaptive behavior.

The first case is abandonment. My need to play golf has been interrupted by a shopping trip, so I abandon the need for a time. I can get the shopping done early, so that I can tee off later and still get 18 holes in before dark.

Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP, is a former Coast Guardsman having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years, then earning a commission through Officer Candidate School, retired as a Lt. CommanderTom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP is president of Alidade MER. He is a former Coast Guardsman, having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years; earned a commission through Officer Candidate School; and retired as a Lt. Commander. During his final year of service, 2003, Tom was selected as the U.S. Coast Guard’s Federal Engineer of the Year; an award sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). He is a member of the Society of Maintenance and Reliability professionals, the past Chair of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Canaveral Florida Section, and a member of the ASME Plant Engineering and Maintenance (PEM) Division. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Western New England College, and an MBA from Florida Institute of Technology; Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in Florida and Virginia, Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional, various credentials in management and reliability fields. He can be reached at tjmpe@alidade-mer.com.

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The second case, substitution, is exchanging one activity for another. Substitution may occur when we realize that a particular need can be satisfied in another way. Suppose my need to play golf is predicated on my desire to have social interactions with my friends. If a thunderstorm disrupts our ability to play golf, I may be happy to substitute a couple of beers and shooting pool at a local pub. If my need was for exercise we would decide to play racquetball or go bowling.

In the third case, maladaptive behavior, if we cannot abandon the need and we cannot find an acceptable substitute, tension will build. Frustration is the principal characteristic of this situation. In my golfing experiences, I have seen people who wanted to be better golfers than they were capable of being. When a below-average golfer has self-esteem or status needs that they don’t have the skills to support, they may revert to cheating by kicking a ball away from a tree or to lying by writing down a score that isn’t true. Cheating and lying are definitely maladaptive behaviors.

More subtle forms of maladaptive behaviors are more common. If I promised to go look at patio furniture with my wife because the once-a-year sale is going on during the day I want to play golf, I may withdraw, or emotionally check out, sulking around the store and not being constructive in the purchasing-decision process.

In the workplace, the people you work with have needs. Needs for each individual are different. Most are working because they need to earn income, to have job security, to have social interactions, or to be respected. Some people are not doing the type of work they really want to do, but they do it anyway. If they have abandoned some of their needs or substituted other activities to satisfy a need, they may not be truly motivated to perform at high levels. If they are exhibiting maladaptive behaviors they may be trying to tell you something, or they may need to reexamine their needs to determine if there’s a better situation for them elsewhere.

It is the responsibility of the leader to recognize the needs of the team members and to help them best satisfy their needs while achieving the mission. Doing so generates motivation, and motivation is the key to performance.

Read Tom Moriarty's monthly column, Human Capital.