Violating Our Values to Meet Our Needs

Why do we do things that we don't want to do? It’s because people will violate their values to meet their needs. What’s going on?

Carrie Kish
May 3, 2013
Violating values for needs

Why do people violate their values?

Why do we do things that we don't want to do? It’s because people will violate their values to meet their needs. Our work is really focused on values, personal values and organizational values. Which is great. But, it doesn’t answer the questions: Why do people “cheat” on their values? Why do we make and break resolutions? Why do people cheat on their diets and skip their exercise programs even though they really want to be healthy and lose weight? Why do people cheat on their spouses? Why do leaders short cut systems and undermine their team members for an outcome? What’s going on?

It’s all about needs.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maybe you’ve heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Essentially, it says that you need to have your basic needs met before you start worrying about some of the higher needs.

Maslow presents human needs in this order:

  1. Biological and Physiological Needs - air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.
  2. Safety Needs - protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability, etc.
  3. Belongingness and Love Needs - work group, family, affection, relationships, etc.
  4. Esteem Needs - self esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.
  5. Self Actualization Needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

According to Maslow, you need to have your basic biological needs met before you can even worry about your personal safety. And, if you aren't safe, you can't worry about love and relationships, social status or personal growth. So, think about a single mother looking to feed her children and living below poverty level. She might actually consider stealing food even though she values honesty and integrity. Or think about a young adult who is worried about how he's going to pay his rent. He might need to get a second job to make ends meet (and he might be dating and looking for love) and probably will not have the band width to go to church, even though he has a faith tradition that he values.

That’s all academically interesting and helpful to understand, but most of our clients are at a point in their lives where their basic needs are met and they have the luxury of exploring their higher needs on Maslow's hierarchy. And, they’re starting to be less concerned with themselves and more concerned with living according to their values and making a difference in the world. They are doing personal and spiritual development. They have good jobs, mostly happy families, nice homes and the luxury to explore what fulfills them in their lives. And they are still violating their values. They are still breaking their promises to themselves, breaking their resolutions, not achieving their goals, and making decisions that don’t line up with their values. What’s up with that?

It’s also all about needs.

Human Needs Psychology

There’s another body of work called Human Needs Psychology. The idea is that we all have six basic human needs. The first four are essential and the last two are considered “spiritual needs” or “luxury needs” that will only get addressed when the first four are fulfilled.

The Six Human Needs are:

  • Certainty/Comfort - the need to be safe, feel secure and comfortable, to know what’s going to happen and when. To have your needs, especially your basic human needs (food, shelter, sex, etc) cared for.
  • Variety - the need for physical and mental stimulation, new experiences, novel ideas, and excitement.
  • Significance - the need to feel important, to be special and unique, to matter and stand out.
  • Love/Connection - the need to feel love and connection with yourself, with a significant other, with family, with friends, etc.
  • Growth and Learning - The need to grow and learn, academically, socially, spiritually, etc.
  • Contribution - The need to make a difference.

The Paradoxes of the Six Human Needs

Some of these needs seem like they are in conflict with each other. They are paradoxes.

Certainty and variety are paradoxes - opposites. If you were always safe and secure and your life was totally predictable, you’d get bored and frustrated. Think of someone who keeps a very predictable schedule, eats the same things every day, does the same things at work. This is an example of someone that needs a lot of certainty. And, if your life was all about variety and new experiences, you’d start craving stability and comfort. Think of an adventure racer, traveling around the world, seeking new challenges. This is an example of someone with a high need for variety. But, most of us fall somewhere in between the two, needing both certainty/comfort and variety.

Likewise, significance and love are paradoxes. Significance is all about being important and being special and unique. It’s very self focused and doesn’t leave a lot of room for love and connection. Think of the typical type-A workaholic who tends not to have time for a family and friends. This person is seeking significance at the expense of love and connection. And, love and connection is all about connecting with others and giving love. Think of the new mom who is focused on caring for her baby to the exclusion of herself, her marriage and her friends.

We need to embrace the paradoxes and find our own unique balance between them.

Values and Vehicles

Each of us values each of these 6 human needs differently. We generally have one or two that we favor. We call these our driving needs. They are the things that drive us to make certain decisions and choices - even more than our values. Imagine, someone whose driving needs are significance and variety. This is very likely someone who values hard work, new experiences, adventure and excellence. Or imagine someone whose driving needs are love and certainty. They will likely value relationships, love, quality time and family. Our driving needs and the order that we value these needs is very individual (and often situational).

Additionally, we also have many different ways that we get our needs met. We call these vehicles. Some common vehicles we use to meet our needs:

  • Certainty/Comfort: job security, marriage, familiar experiences and habits like watching TV, smoking, over eating, drinking, etc.
  • Variety: food, movies, books, travel, adventure, sports, games, etc.
  • Significance: jobs, credentials, education, keeping up with the Joneses, fitness, relationships, etc.
  • Love/Connection: relationships, marriage, sex, friendship, Facebook, smoking (connecting with self), over eating (self), drinking (self), etc.
  • Growth and Learning: education, reading, church, personal development, learning new things, etc.
  • Making a Difference: work, volunteer work, church, etc.

A vehicle that meets four or more of our needs at a high level often becomes an addiction. Think of an alcoholic who turns to alcohol for certainty/comfort after a hard day, gets variety in his mood and experience (or uses different types of alcohol for variety), feels really important and grandiose when drinking, and is totally connected with himself (and possibly feels more confident with women when drinking). He is getting at least four of his basic needs met by drinking, which contributes to addiction.

Violating our Values to Meet Our Needs

So, here’s what happens. Our needs trump our values. We will actually violate our values to meet out needs. So, you can see this play out in a couple of cliche examples:

Diet and Exercise -A woman really wants to lose weight because her weight makes her very unhappy or because she is having health concerns. She sets up a diet and exercise plan. She really wants to stick to it. She values health and fitness. But, her driving needs are certainty/comfort and love/connection. When she’s stressed out, she over eats for comfort. When she’s at a party, she eats food off of her plan to connect with other people. Her kids want fast food, so she has fast food for dinner because that is one of the ways that she shows love for her family. She violates her values of health and fitness to meet her needs for certainty/comfort and love/connection.

Infidelity - A man has a great wife and family, but he has an extra-marital affair. He values integrity and honesty, But, his driving needs are significance and variety. Life is hard at home. The kids are a lot of work. His wife is tired and doesn’t take care of herself. He feels like he can’t do anything right at home. He immerses himself in work where he feels confident and competent. He gets a lot of attention from a woman who thinks he’s amazing and important and that he doesn’t have any responsibilities with. He sneaks around and has new experiences with her that he doesn’t have with his wife. He violates his values of integrity and honesty to meet his needs for significance and variety.

These are just two (pretty common) examples of how we might violate our values to meet our needs. There are many others. Any time we catch ourselves violating our values, it is very helpful to explore our needs to get more information.

So what do we do about it?

Know your values and know your driving needs. Know the vehicles that you use to meet your needs. Expand your list of vehicles for meeting your needs that also meet your values. Notice where you are violating your values to meet your needs. Set up new vehicles to meet your needs that are in alignment with your values.