The Great Dividends of Seeking To Understand People

The more you understand people the better off you’ll be.

Nothing pays bigger dividends than an understanding of people. In fact, it is the foundation of marital bliss, professional success, and political power. If you truly understand people, if you know what makes them tick, you will get ahead. And if you apply your knowledge ethically and consistently, you will stay ahead.

Of course, understanding people is easier said than done. It is an art rather than a science. But let me suggest a few guiding principles — because once you understand people, it becomes a lot easier to motivate and enlist their cooperation.

FIRST, EVERYONE’S BEHAVIOR MAKES SENSE. Oh it may not make sense to you, but to the person executing the behavior, it makes sense. So you can’t write off someone else’s behavior as totally incomprehensible. It’s not.

All behavior has a motive behind it. Whether you go to school, quit your job, develop a new product, fire an employee, or get married, everything you do and everything everybody else does has a motive behind it. When you discover the motive, you will understand the behavior. It will make sense.

SECOND, DIFFERENT PEOPLE GIVE DIFFERENT RANKINGS TO THE SAME MOTIVE. What’s important to you might not be so important to somebody else. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that everybody sees the same motive in the same way.

For example, I’ve often written about the need to recognize employees. It’s a great motivator to a great many people. But there are some employees who will say, “Talk is cheap. Give me a raise.”

Or you may buy your spouse a special gift because you like it when people give you gifts. But your spouse may think, “I don’t care about your gifts. I want you to spend some quality time with me.”

To be truly successful with your coworkers, customers, and family members, you’ve got to get beyond your own frame of reference. You’ve got to stop thinking about what would motivate you and start thinking about what would motivate them.

Fortunately, THERE IS A FAIR DEGREE OF UNIFORMITY IN PEOPLE’S MOTIVES. In other words, a few basic motives explain much of human behavior. Look for evidence of those basic motives, and you’ll be on your way to understanding most people’s behavior.

There are four such motives. In fact the whole drama of life springs out of these four motives common to all of us.

One of them says, “I WANT TO LIVE.” You’ll hear people say, “When I’m ninety I won’t care if I’m dead.” And that’s the way people feel unless they’re eighty-nine and feel pretty good.

When a juice maker says it will add ten years to your life, you think you’ve got to have it. After all, you want to live.

And when a company reorganizes or downsizes, the employees almost always get frightened. They’re not sure if they’ll have a job, and they’re not sure if they’ll be able to pay the bills or buy groceries, and that threatens their desire to live.

Another basic motive says, “I WANT TO FEEL IMPORTANT.” Almost everyone wants some attention, respect, prestige, or admiration.

Look at children. The little boy at the pool says, “Watch me, Mama. Watch me.” So Mama watches him, applauds him, and admires him. And the little boy glows.

Adults are the same. In fact, master trainer Bob Pike says, “Adults are nothing more than babies in big bodies.”

Of course, people don’t run around openly demanding that people watch them. They don’t say, “Boss, look at me. Look at me.” Employees learn to do it more subtly. They seek the titles that will bring them greater respect. Or they learn how to look good when the boss is around.

The same goes for society as a whole. People desire the big cars, live in the fancy homes, and wear the finest clothing, hoping somebody else will notice. It’s all an attempt to feel important.

Another strong, basic motive says, “I WANT TO BE CONNECTED.” I want to be liked, and I want to feel loved. Almost no one wants to be left out, overlooked, or forgotten.

I just finished a series of interviews with the managers and employees of a particular organization. The organization has severe morale and motivational problems, and it was my job to get to the bottom of the problem.

As I interviewed the people, I kept hearing the same thing over and over again. The people kept saying, “They don’t seem to care about us…They never ask us what we think…They don’t listen to our suggestions…” The people felt disconnected.

When it comes to personal relationships, the same is true. Almost everyone wants to feel connected — or loved. Unfortunately, there are more people who want to be loved than are willing to do the loving. As one young woman said, “I was involved in a triangle. He and I were both in love with him.”

And almost everyone seeks the security of a permanent and enduring love. Despite all the TV hype and glamorization of the no-ties, swinging, single lifestyle, almost everyone in that lifestyle is trying to escape it. They’re looking for something deeper and more lasting.

That’s why one young man asked his girlfriend if she loved him. “Yes, I do,” Suzanne said.

“Would you die for me?” Jason continued.

“No,” Suzanne said. “Mine is an undying love.”

The last of the four basic motives says, “I WANT A LITTLE VARIETY AND CHANGE.” Humans tire of the same thing. They hate monotony and hope to escape the sameness of their daily routines through vacations, TV, and movies.

When a woman goes to her closet filled with clothes and says she has nothing to wear, she’s not talking about her lack of garments. She’s saying she doesn’t have anything new and different and exciting to wear. She wants a little variety and change.

When an employee complains that nothing ever changes around here, he’s talking about his desire for improvement. He can think of better ways to get the job done, or he can see the possibility of more effective teamwork — and he sure would like to see those changes take place.

One of the surest routes to success comes with an understanding of people. When you know what motivates their behavior, you can influence that behavior for the good of all.

Action:  It’s time to sharpen your observation skills. For one week, watch people in your life — watch your coworkers, customers, and family members.

And as you watch their behavior, see if you can figure out which of the four basic motives is motivating that behavior. Is it the desire to live, to feel important, to be connected, or to have some change?