What drives behaviour?

When we recognize that all human behaviour is an attempt to meet a perceived or actual need, we can choose to look beyond the behaviour and become curious about the need someone’s trying to meet. Behaviours are like the tip of an iceberg – the larger submerged part is the need that drives the behaviour.

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Why this matters

When people resist an idea, their underlying need may be an attempt to avoid failing. Or, maybe they feel humiliated because they don’t understand how or fear that the idea won’t work for them. If we only respond to their resistance without addressing the fear, we may find our conversation quite frustrating. When we ask the other person to share their thoughts about what could go wrong or what could make the idea better, we can reduce resistance and have a more open dialogue.

Maybe someone reacts defensively to what you thought was just a casual observation. They may feel blamed for whatever you’re talking about, and that causes them to act defensively. If you become defensive about their reaction, rather than curious about their underlying need, you may end up in conflict with them.

In each of these cases, you can choose to avoid reacting to someone else’s behaviours. Instead, ask questions or be curious about their unmet needs. This allows you to have more constructive and honest conversations. 

Explore and reflect

Our main need is survival. When our survival is threatened, we seek control and approval so we can feel more secure – emotionally, psychologically, financially, relationally and physically.

We can break down the need for survival, control and approval to include:

Acknowledgement and recognition

We all have different needs for how we want to be seen and heard. Some of us want to be the centre of attention, while others prefer to connect one-on-one. Most of us want someone to acknowledge and recognize the highs and lows we experience in life, including:

  • Losses – our health, our loved ones, our jobs or our dreams
    • Some behaviours that may show this need isn’t being met are withdrawal, lethargy and lack of motivation.
  • Accomplishments and milestones – promotions, births or adoptions of a child or graduation
    • Some behaviours that may show this need isn’t being met are boasting, defensiveness or hostility.


We all have different needs for how much independence we want in making choices. Some people prefer extensive guidance and structure, while others desire a lot of freedom. Most of us want some choice related to:

  • Making our own decisions 
    • Some behaviours that may show this need isn’t being met are irritation, rebellion or sarcasm.
  • Choosing our own goals 
    • Some behaviours that may show this need isn’t being met are lack of motivation, resistance or frustration.
  • Contributing our own ideas 
    • Some behaviours that may show this need isn’t being met are sabotaging or challenging others’ ideas, giving others the silent treatment or not engaging with others.


We all have different needs for living within our own moral principles. Some people are very flexible doing things they may not wholeheartedly agree with, while others are very rigid in how they view right and wrong. Integrity includes:

  • Speaking and acting in a way that aligns with your values 
    • Some behaviours that may show this need isn’t being met are passive-aggressiveness, angry outbursts or hostility.
  • Feeling comfortable to be authentic without fear of reprisal or ridicule
    • Some behaviours that may show this need isn’t being met are lying, withholding information or keeping secrets.


We all have different needs for how much we depend on others or have others depend on us. Some of us are more comfortable giving support, and others are more open to receiving support. Interdependence allows us to balance our relationships so that we receive adequate:

  • Empathy, understanding, acceptance, reassurance, and consideration
    • Some behaviours that may show this need isn’t being met are whining, questioning or boasting.
  • Appreciation, love and support
    • Some behaviours that may show this need isn’t being met are crying, withdrawal or fishing for compliments.
  • Trust, respect, emotional safety
    • Some behaviours that may show this need isn’t being met are suspicion, refusal to speak up or continual questioning.


While we all have basic needs for air, water, food and shelter, we also have specific needs based on our expectations and current physical situation. For example, someone with severe allergies may need a more sterile environment than someone without allergies. Someone who has a heart condition may need rest more than someone whose heart is healthy.

When someone feels that their basic physical needs aren’t being met, they may become anxious or distracted. During the pandemic, those who felt their well-being was being threatened by those who didn’t follow public health recommendations for washing hands and wearing masks may have become upset or afraid. If you don’t meet your need for physical nourishment, you may end up with mental or physical illness.


We all have different levels of need for play. Some people like to inject fun and laughter into everything they do. Others are more serious most of the time and see play as something they only need occasionally. Play can include:

  • Humour or anything that makes you laugh
  • Enjoyable sports or games
  • Hobbies or leisure activities that keep you totally in the moment
  • Competitive, co-operative or solo activities
    • When our needs for play aren’t met, we can lose our sense of humour and feel overwhelmed with the seriousness of life. 


Our spiritual needs are about managing emotions, such as shame, grief, guilt and resentment as well as those of hope, joy and love of life. Our spiritual needs may be met through:

  • Making meaning out of our lives
  • Finding purpose and inspiration
  • Appreciation for beauty and nature
  • Using mindfulness to maintain harmony, order and peace 
    • When our spiritual needs aren’t met, we may become despondent, unmotivated or fearful. This can manifest in violent or self-destructive behaviours.

Generally, we have positive emotions when our basic needs are met and negative emotions when our needs aren’t met.

When we witness someone behaving in a way that seems inappropriate or harmful to themselves or others, we can step back and wonder which need isn’t being met. This can help us avoid simply judging the behaviour. This is also helpful when we’re trying to manage our own negative behaviours. Think about what need you might not be filling and consider how you can change that.

Fulfilling our basic human needs is critical for overall life satisfaction and strongly impacts how we behave and interact with others.

Take action

Consider how each of your basic human needs are or aren’t being met. If they aren’t currently being met, find ways to change that. You can use this form to complete the exercise.

  • Appreciation and recognition
  • Autonomy
  • Integrity
  • Independence
  • Physical 
  • Play
  • Spiritual 

Additional resources

Link emotions, thoughts and behaviours. We associate our emotions – positive or negative – with the ways we think about ourselves, how we behave and how we perceive others and the world.

Monitor your impact on othersYour mood affects others, whether you wish it to or not.  Strengthen your relationships by being aware of your impact on others.


1. Rosenberg, M. B. (2004). We Can Work it Out: Resolving Conflicts Peacefully and Powerfully. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.


Contributors include.articlesDr. Joti SamraWorkplace Strategies team 2007-2021

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