Most everyone has heard about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — a theory of what motivates human beings. It was presented by Abraham Maslow in 1943 and has since been used widely by corporate leaders, business owners, and managers across the enterprise to understand and motivate employees.

If you need a quick reminder, Maslow proposed that people have five levels of needs:

  • Physiological: Air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing, reproduction
  • Safety: Personal security, employment, resources, health, property
  • Love/belonging: Friendship, intimacy, family, sense of connection
  • Esteem: Respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, freedom
  • Self-actualization: Self-fulfillment, achieving one’s full potential

Maslow was born in 1908, raised in Brooklyn (New York), and was the oldest of seven siblings born to immigrants from Kiev. He structured the above levels of needs as a pyramid, with basic physical (physiological) needs at the base and increasingly higher levels of needs moving up toward the top of the pyramid. People generally find motivation at a higher level only when their lower level needs are met. For example, an employee who is struggling to feed, clothe, and shelter herself and her family is more likely to be motivated by potential raises or bonuses and not by offers of increased recognition or status.

Although Maslow includes love and belonging in his hierarchy, I think he falls short by not thoroughly addressing what I call the need for relationship and connection — two needs I delve into more deeply in this post. We all need relationship and connection, but many of us do not realize we have this need, or we even fight it through a false need for independence or self-reliance — believing that we can and should “do” life all alone. (Curiously enough, self-reliance and independence are excluded from Maslow’s hierarchy, as they should be. Though one might choose to argue that self-actualization would include these.)

Keep in mind that, by definition, the need for relationship and connection cannot be met in isolation. We need others, and they need us for all of us to feel bonded and to support one another. We need others to bear our burdens in times of crisis. No one can, or should, “go it alone.”

From childhood on

This need for relationship and connection begins early in  life. Children rely on their parents to meet the majority of their needs during the formative years, especially during the first few months of life. According to attachment theory, a child must attach to his or her mother, father, or other primary caregiver within the first 36 months of life to ensure healthy psychological and emotional development. Without this connection, the child will continue to seek this relationship in other ways for many years after, often filling the need in an unhealthy fashion. For example, nearly all narcissists have had a poor connection with their mothers or early caregivers.

As children continue to develop, they become more and more able to fulfill many of their own needs, but they still will rely on others to help meet more mature needs for the rest of their lives.

This need for relationship and connection is a part of every human’s make up. It is certainly the case in romantic relationships, but it is also true in any organization, especially at the leadership level. It is my experience as an executive coach that leaders who feel comfortable sharing their vulnerability and asking for their needs to be met, achieve higher levels of acceptance and respect among employees, colleagues, and clients. They become like all of us who aspire to be — more approachable, humble, fallible, and real.

The unrecognized or unexpressed need for relationship and connection

All that we do is based on our need to relate, and our life is motivated by this need: family, love, intimacy, vulnerability, work, and leadership. According to author, business consultant, and psychologist Dr. John Townsend:

Longitudinal studies have proven over and over that without significant supportive relationships, we have more psychological dysfunctions, we have more health problems, and we die sooner.

Though a need for relationship and connection can also be unhealthy in certain contexts, healthy, legitimate relationship needs often remain unspoken or even unrecognized.

Most of us have difficulty asking for our relationship needs to be met due to several common obstacles, including the following:

  • Fear of intrusion, rejection, or shame
  • Fear of feeling or appearing weak, selfish, or undeserving
  • The mistaken belief that our need for relationship and connection are ancillary or unimportant
  • Trust issues
  • Not wanting to burden others

An even bigger challenge for business leaders

Business leaders likely have an even greater need for relationship and connection than do people in less demanding roles. Relationship and connection provide the fuel that empowers leaders to reach their personal and professional objectives, and which often play a role in inspiring others to do the same.

Unfortunately, in my observation, business leaders often struggle more than most of us to express their needs for relationship and connection. They typically assume they should be able to fulfill all their needs themselves. They also falsely assume that others expect them to fulfill their own needs. Business leaders are “in charge,” right? What could they possibly need? Leaders often feel they should show that they are independent at work and often in their home lives, as well. Usually this stance leaves their families feeling disconnected from them.

Business leaders, in general, are so focused on meeting the needs of others in the firm and the firm’s customers or clients that they spend little time focusing on their own needs. With the high level of demands and responsibilities placed on them, human connection is often a low priority. Several factors are responsible for leaders’ neglect of their own needs, including the following:

  • The task orientation of their role
  • The pressures they face
  • Having to pay attention to the needs of others
  • Concerns about being strong for others
  • Their own significant relational experiences
  • Concern about letting others see their needs or vulnerabilities

The problem is that neglecting one’s need for relationship and connection causes or contributes to personal and interpersonal dysfunctions that negatively impact a business leader’s ability to function at a high level.

To optimize their performance and successfully overcome the challenges they are certain to encounter, business leaders must learn how to identify and meet their relation and connection needs through interactions with others.

I believe that building a productive corporate culture requires paying attention to how relationships help everyone in an organization (including and perhaps especially its leaders) engage with one another at healthy levels. In his book The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni shows, through a number of case studies, that the ‘people factor’ is a major part of any organization’s success. These people skills are also important in dealing with customers and the public.

Business leaders must look introspectively at the relational aspects of their role (versus focusing solely on the bottom line). Many studies have proven that competence alone does not make for a successful leader. Character plays the bigger role, and character is primarily a product of relationships and connections with others. For more about the importance of character, check out my previous blog post, Exploring the Question of Character vs Competence.

Asking others to meet our relationship and connection needs

To meet our relationship and connection needs, we need to express these needs to others. Others cannot read our minds, nor can we read theirs. When we do not express our needs to others, they cannot be expected to recognize our needs or look for ways to meet those needs, and most people truly want to. If you fear being or seeming to be selfish, keep in mind that asking to have your needs met benefits others in two ways:

  1. Just like you, people need to feel needed and useful. Most people are generous and enjoy giving to others. By asking to have your needs met, you give others the opportunity to give.
  2. Asking for needs to be met is a reciprocal transaction. When we express our need for relationship and connection to others, others feel more comfortable expressing their needs. Essentially, you are giving others “permission” to express their needs.

The words and phrases we use to communicate our needs are important. For example, instead of saying something like “I need you to ____ ,” a more effective statement may be something like, “I think we might relate better to each other if my need for ____ is met” or “I think your team might respond better to you if you ask for your need for ____ to be met, or you attune to their needs.”

In his latest book, People Fuel: Fill Your Tank for Life, Love, and Leadership, Dr. John Townsend presents the following Four Quads framework for expressing a need most effectively:

Quadrant 1 – Be Present

  • Acceptance: Connect without judgement.
  • Attunement: Respond to what another is experiencing. Get “in their well.”
  • Validation: Convey that person’s experience is significant and not to be diminished.
  • Identification: Share your similar story.
  • Containment: Allow the other to vent while staying warm without reacting.
  • Comfort: Provide support for someone’s loss.

Quadrant 2 — Convey the Good

  • Affirmation: Draw attention to the good.
  • Encouragement: Convey that you believe in someone’s ability do the difficult.
  • Respect: Assign value.
  • Hope: Provide reality-based confidence in the future.
  • Forgiveness: Cancel a debt.
  • Celebration: Acknowledge a win, both cognitively and emotionally.

Quadrant 3 — Provide Reality

  • Clarification: Bring order to confusion.
  • Perspective: Offer a different viewpoint.
  • Insight: Convey deeper understanding.
  • Feedback: Give a personal response.
  • Confrontation: Face someone with an appeal to change.

Quadrant 4 — Call to Action

  • Advice: Recommend an action step.
  • Structure: Provide a framework.
  • Challenge: Strongly recommend a difficult action.
  • Development: Create a growth environment.
  • Service: Guide engagement to giving back.

I also recommend that every leader have a “life team” in place to fulfill the need for relationship, connection, and support — a topic I will cover in greater detail in a later post.

For now, I encourage you to start seeking and taking advantage of opportunities to express your need for relationship and connection. As you do, you will soon find that your life is both enriched and much easier. Life always is richer and easier when we share it with others and support one another.

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About the Author: Jan Moorad, a former Deloitte management consultant and Major League Baseball team partner, is a Newport Beach, Calif.-based executive coach who helps C-Suite executives and their spouses pursue and achieve personal and professional fulfillment.