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May 5, 2023

What the Human Brain Really Wants

written by

Rob Gaedtke

President & CEO

“Humans are complex.”


Three things—that’s all we really need to feel satisfied. So, what are they? I’ll cut right to the chase because one of my three is getting to the point (jk): A wise Vistage speaker once shared that the human brain needs 1) to be challenged, 2) to feel respected and empowered, and 3) to feel cared for. That’s it.

And when you really break it down, it makes sense. So, let’s take a deeper look at what these mean in general and in our workplace.

To be Challenged

If you have been in an industry for a long time, you know work grows stagnant if you are not being challenged. We want to feel like we are pushing ourselves. Like we are using our skills to contribute to the bigger picture. It could be something as general as having the opportunity to test a new technology or as grand as creating something from scratch.

Here are tangible ways to ensure people are always growing:

  • Create a growth card: a document that can be shared with the entire company on what you are actively working to get better at. We pick 2-5 “what I'm actively working to get better at” topics and then list “how I would like you to support me in them.”
  • Always ask for “their stamp” on any project or process. I like to tell people to do one thing different on every project. Add just one touch that is unique to you.
  • Move people around! Don’t let someone stay in the same position, with the same clients, or doing the same sized projects. Shake it up! Sometimes one change is enough of a challenge to feel satisfied.

The important thing to remember is that it must be achievable, and it must fall within the person’s comfort zone. Some people like the unknown, crazy push. Most, however, like an obtainable challenge.

To be Respected and Empowered

Part of being challenged is feeling empowered to innovate. (I hope that’s a no brainer.) Foster a respectful, open-minded environment. Encourage making decisions and sharing different opinions. Promote the chance for people to create great work their way.

One thing I associate with empowerment is encouraging breaking lanes. Just because it isn’t in your job title doesn’t mean you can’t support it. Help with an estimate, write a little copy, and, heck, unload the dishwasher if you think it will save someone time. That’s respect—that’s empowerment.

Mutual respect also means we can be honest with each other. There are a couple ways we stay connected:

  • Having clear expectation documents between employee and manager will keep both parties aligned on what is, well, expected.
  • Set a “minimum level of care” for one-on-one meetings, what is covered, and talking about issues early and often.
  • Feedback is always given—from anyone at any level.

Sidepoint: The micromanager is the epitome of failing this step. Set the mission, set guard rails, and be there for support. Anything else is counterproductive. Autonomy proves trust. Of course there is collaboration—and that is a huge part of the fun—but you should strive to make every employee feel respected as individuals and professionals.

To Feel Cared for

And finally, the soft one: actually giving a damn about your team. Proving that you care about their future, about their happiness, about their time. Want a few super simple ways to put this one in action?

  • Don’t require information when someone requests PTO. It’s none of your damn business!
  • Acknowledge people’s personal struggles without prying.
  • Give the benefit of the doubt.

At the core of feeling cared for is having each other’s back. It makes people excited to come to work or to take personal time. Doing so also makes sure we meet the other two needs of being challenged and being respected. By this, I mean people understand that you value their time and ideas, so they push themselves during the work day.

Final Thought

At the end of the day, you might have to toss all this out and create your own roadmap. (Like most of my final thoughts.) People are all unique, so it is important to know your crew well enough to understand what and when to shift. Some people feel valued if they are empowered to make decisions, others may need more verbal praise, and some just want you to leave them the heck alone. Taking time to recognize each employee and how they thrive in the workplace will keep them around for a long time.

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