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The Human Needs of a Project Team

teamWhat are the top human needs that drive people in your team?

You are probably familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which is one of the most widely referenced motivational theories. In this post I have drawn from several resources and models to compose an overview of the biggest needs that drive us all. When met, these needs have the potential to create high performance and fulfillment in ourselves and the people around us.

The project management profession has for a while been preoccupied with tasks, processes and plans. But we know, that although processes are necessary, it’s people who deliver projects. And people are only able to put in their best efforts and unite around a common goal if they feel positive about the work they do and believe in the project’s purpose. In other words, a happy and fulfilled team is more likely to be a productive team. If people aren’t enjoying the work they do and the conditions under which they work, part of their energy will be spent worrying, and they will be less able and willing to contribute. Understanding the human needs that have the potential to ether motivate us or demotivate us, will help project managers reduce fear, doubt and friction and instead create a highly driven team.

As we take a look at these fundamental needs, be aware that there is no right or wrong. We all have each of the needs, but in different degrees. It is a person’s top two needs that are the most interesting, because they determine the majority of their behavior.


Certainly is about our need to know that we will be safe and secure – that we have a job, and that we will be paid at the end of the month. In a work environment we like to know what is expected of us, when the project is due to complete, and that we have a role to play after it finishes. People who have a high need for certainty may be less likely to switch jobs or openly embrace change. They like predictability and having a clear roadmap of what will happen when. As our brains are wired to keep us safe and secure, this is a need that plays a huge role in most people’s lives. The negative aspect of certainty is that some people become overly controlling of their environments and of others. In a project context we can help our team members – and stakeholders – get their need for certainty fulfilled by providing as much clarity as we can about project outcomes, timelines and the expectations we have of them.



In spite of many people’s certainty-drive nature, we all have a need for variety and for change in our lives and in our work. Imagine for instance how boring it would be if I could give you 100% certainly about what would happen in your life and career. Very few people would enjoy that. We need a certain amount of spice and risk and uncertainty. Some people get this need fulfilled by having exciting or dangerous hobbies outside of work like extreme skiing or skydiving. Others get it fulfilled by working on many different types of projects and solving complex problems – or by creating unnecessary drama. If you’re working with a drama queen for instance, consider that this may be their way to create some spice and uncertainty.



Another big driver for many people is the need for fulfilling relationships, for being part of a group and feeling that they belong. People are social beings who form tribes. We like to connect with like-minded individuals and feel at home in our tribe – be it a nation, a neighborhood, a sports club, a team or an organization. At work we can help our team mates get this need fulfilled by enabling them to connect with colleagues, work towards a common goal and having joint experiences. Don’t underestimate the importance of social activities, one-on-one meetings or even water-cooler conversations. They help people to feel connected and tuned in to people around them.



The need for significance is about our desire to stand out and be respected. We all like to be recognized for our work and to be thanked for something we have done well. Some people get their need for significance fulfilled by having a large number of people report to them, driving a prestigious car or having a certain education, which gives them social status and esteem. A negative way to get this need fulfilled is when people elevate themselves by putting others down and criticizing their work. A more positive way would be to set a good example and being a role model for others to follow. As a project manager you probably won’t be able to promote people or give them a pay rise, as it isn’t within your remit. What you can do however is to praise people for a task well completed. But make sure that your praise is heartfelt, sincere and that it isn’t being overused. Otherwise it will lose its meaning.



The fifth need is growth. Everyone has as need to progress and learn and to feel that they are going somewhere. You probably agree that we sometimes accept an assignment or a job even if it’s in a bad location or if it isn’t paying very well. We do it because it will bring us growth, new experiences and a chance to build our CV. In a professional context you can do a lot to help your team members grow. You can give people stretch assignments that challenge them personally and professionally – e.g. enabling someone to lean a new technology, helping someone become a better presenter, or trusting a project support person to look after the project budget. Maintaining the budget may be a task that you find boring, but to a junior person it could be quite a motivating assignment. You can also allow people to attend conferences, internal training and lunch and learn sessions.


We may not be super conscious about this one, but human psychologists claim that we all have a need to contribute to a cause bigger than ourselves. This is about finding purpose in what we do and feeling that we are making a difference through our work. The need to contribute is what drives people to volunteer – for instance at the Olympics – or to work for a charitable organization even if the salary isn’t on par with other sectors. Unfortunately, I have rarely seen a project manager make their teams feel that what they’re doing is worthwhile and will make a big difference in the world. But all projects have a raison d’être. There should always be a reason why we are doing a project and there will always be an end-user or a client for whom the project will make a difference. Even regulatory projects have a purpose and may actually contribute to making the world a better, safer or fairer place to be and to do business.


team4Mastery and autonomy

In addition to the above needs, researchers talk about two further drivers of human behavior: the need for mastery and autonomy. Mastery is the need to specialize in something, to master a certain skill and become an expert in it. It’s the satisfaction we get from knowing an area really well and completing a piece of work to a high standard. Autonomy is the need we have for independence and the freedom to choose. It is easy to see the link between these two needs and the work we do on projects. Many team members value the opportunity to specialize in an area, to do “deep work” and develop a strength. They also value the freedom to choose where and how to do their work. No one likes to be micromanaged.


In which ways is money a motivator?

At this point you may wonder why we haven’t mentioned money, as many people appear to be driven by the need to earn more. Most behaviorists however argue that money isn’t a true motivator, but that it does have the potential to de-motivate us if we haven’t got enough. Once we get paid a sufficient amount to take the issue off the table, money ceases to be a motivator. Maybe it’s not the money itself that motives us but what it buys us. Someone who craves money may be certainly driven as it buys them financial security. Or they may be driven by significance, and use money to give them status and admiration.


What are your top two needs?

The question you need to ask yourself is “what are my two dominant needs and what are the strategies I use to get them fulfilled?” It’s your top two needs that drive your behavior. Also ask yourself if you meet these needs in ways that have a positive impact on the people around you. Do you, for argument’s sake, get your need for growth fulfilled at the expense of your team’s growth? Or are you driving other people crazy by being overly controlling as a way to get your need for certainty fulfilled?


What are you doing to help your team members get their needs fulfilled?

The next question is, “In which ways do I attempt to satisfy these needs in each of my team members? Rather than creating a team of prima donnas this is about understanding what makes each person tick so that you can better accommodate people, play to their strengths and give them the work they enjoy. When people feel happy and fulfilled, your project is rewarded with highly motivated individuals. To my mind, that’s a win-win situation!

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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015). Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM). Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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