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Learn how to understand people’s needs and be prepared to act on those needs to boost morale and successfully reach your organization’s goals.


Image of hands clasped together with quote: Leadership is a privilege to better the lives of others. It is not an opportunity to satisfy personal greed. - Mwai Kiabaki

  • What kinds of needs do people have?

  • Why should the leader try to understand people's needs?

  • How can a leader best understand people's needs?

In earlier sections of this chapter, we discussed the leader's vision: how he develops it and how he will communicate it to followers. Certainly, sharing a vision is an important part of leadership. People follow people they can believe in, who they trust to help them achieve their goals.

But what are those goals? What do people want from a leader? What do they need, or what do they think they need?

Understanding the answers to these questions is another thread in the tapestry of effective leadership. This understanding is also inseparable from other qualities of leadership we discuss elsewhere in this chapter. For example, it will inform the leader's vision, and then it will show him or her the best way to inspire followers. Ultimately, a thoughtful understanding (and responsiveness to) followers' needs can result in strong relationships with a committed group of people, and final success, in more ways than the leader had originally imagined.

Because of the importance of this topic, this section will focus entirely on understanding what people need and want from the leader and the organization. The next few sections in this chapter will build on this knowledge, incorporating it as part of the base of a strong relationship between the leader and his or her followers.

More specifically, in this section we will look at some of the general types of needs that the leader should be aware of. We'll then discuss in a bit more depth why it's important for a leader in particular to be aware of people's needs. Finally, we'll look at some specific ways of how to best understand the needs of people the leader wishes to serve.

What kinds of needs do people have?

We all know what needs are--things that are necessary, that are required for some reason. They are similar to wants, and in fact, for those of us doing community work, there's quite a bit of overlap. If we want someone to do something for us, for example, they may say that they need something in return. A secretary might need extra cash if you want him to work overtime. A reporter might need your word that she will be given the "inside scoop" on future goings-on if she gives you good press this week. And so, while this sections is properly titled "Understanding people's needs," it's important to realize that a good leader will understand what people just really want, too.

There are also a lot of different types of needs, both for the community as a whole and for individual members, that a conscientious leader should be aware of. These can be broken down into five general categories.

Large-scope community needs

What does the community need, overall, to promote its own well-being? For example, is there a need for affordable housing? Is ending youth violence what the community needs to see happen? Do many people in the community need jobs --or better jobs?

Sometimes, understanding what a community needs is obvious to everyone. If there has been an earthquake, for example, there is an immediate need for food, water, and housing for people whose homes were affected.

However, much of the time, the needs of a community aren't that clear. For example, there might be many competing needs, so that a community group doesn't know what it should try to do first. Or all too often, there is a lack of complete information available, and organizations and their leaders are left trying to understand what's necessary without having all the facts.

Root or causal needs

These are the "real needs" --the underlying causes of what more obvious needs might be. For example, if a child comes into the emergency room with whooping cough, his immediate need (and that of his community) is for medical attention, so he will get better and not spread the disease to others. But the root need might be his need to be immunized. Going back a step farther, public health officials might say there is a need for an immunization campaign in his community, if a larger number of the children there haven't been properly immunized.

For another example, take the case of a community with a high rate of teen pregnancy. A coalition might say that there is a need to decrease that rate. But what needs to happen for that to occur? For example, is there a need for better access to contraceptives? Is there a need for young people to have more supervised activities, or to have better sexual education at school?

Obviously, these needs are harder to understand. They aren't always apparent, and often, it seems like there are several root causes a group might need to consider.

Informational needs

Here, we are just talking about the need for basic facts and knowledge. These are some of the simpler needs for a leader to understand and respond to. For example, do members know how to run a meeting? Write a newsletter? Do community members have enough information about the candidates to vote intelligently in the upcoming election?

Another reason that these needs are relatively easy to deal with is that they are easy for people to talk about. Some the other needs might be more difficult to bring up. For example, it's a very rare volunteer who will tell the organization's leader, "I don't feel appreciated. I need you to tell me how much I mean to this organization," even though many volunteers have felt that way at one time or another. It's much easier for a volunteer to say, "Sure, I'd be interested in counseling women at the shelter, but I've never done it before. Can you show me how?"

Physical needs

These are the needs that you can see; things that you can physically touch. Fulfilling these needs, because they are so concrete, can give a very tangible sense of accomplishment.

Some examples of these needs include:

  • More money for the organization
  • More staff or volunteers
  • Better lighting for the community
  • More safe homes for foster children

Personal needs

Finally, there is the need for appreciation, understanding, personal caring, etc. Most members of grassroots organizations are there (either as staff members or volunteers) for reasons that have little or nothing to do with money, including fellowship, personal fulfillment, and many other things. While less tangible than some of the other needs, it is equally important that these needs be fulfilled if the organization and its goals are to flourish.

Before we move on, it's important to remember that leaders have needs, too. We're just as human as any other member of our organization is. As leaders, however, we may not always have the freedom to lean on other members of the organization. We may have to find other places to fulfill some of our own needs. However we choose to do so, though, it's important that leaders do take care of themselves as well as the needs of others in the organization.

Why should the leader try to understand people's needs?

Many of the advantages to understanding what people need and want are probably already clear to you. To be complete, however, let's look here at the major advantages:

  • Clear needs identification and response to those identified needs keep the group moving forward toward shared and desired goals. There is a sense of ownership among members--we all want the same thing, and we're working together to get it.
  • Reaching these goals can create a sense of accomplishment among group members.
  • This sense of accomplishment (and having a sense of being a real, necessary part of that success) will strengthen individuals' connections with the group and will increase the likelihood of the group being successful in future efforts.
  • All of this will also serve to keep the morale of the group high.
  • Finally, it will reinforce group members' belief in the leader. A leader who has shown he understands and tries to meet the needs of the members of his group is more than likely to have a group that will try to meet his needs as well.

How can a leader best understand people's needs?

There are many methods that can be used for a leader to understand the needs of individuals, the organization, and the larger community. The general idea behind all of them, however, is for the leader to plan the best ways of collecting feedback, and then to make this a normal part of the everyday life of the organization. This might include occasional (for example, monthly) formal opportunities to obtain information, which are then supplemented by more informal feedback collected on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, the leader doesn't need to do all of this collection of information herself (although doing at least some of it is probably a good idea). Some of this "information collecting" can be formally or informally delegated to others.

A central idea here is that being able to learn what people think and need will depend on trust. People need to trust that they won't be criticized, yelled at, or in danger of losing their job if they speak up. We all know this happens. Even in fairly open organizations, a preferred strategy is often to keep one's mouth shut. This may be true for a variety of reasons, but one of them is certainly the risks involved in disclosure.

Even more than this, people need to feel there is a real possibility that some good will come out of their telling the leader what they need. If someone knows their needs are impossible to meet, or if they believe they will just be ignored anyway, there's a real fear that apathy will stand in the way of what could be a very helpful suggestion. Thoughts of "Why bother?" need to have the immediate answer, "Because if I open my mouth, I really can change things."

So for the leader to get the feedback she wants and needs, thoughtful and persistent effort is necessary. Trust once again is central to the process; the leader needs to establish and institutionalize a trusting organizational climate. Unless the leader is trusted, the informal methods won't work well, and the formal ones are less likely to work. But in a climate of trust, people are a whole lot more likely to tell you what's on their minds. They often do so spontaneously and at many noninstitutionalized times and places --whether you've asked for their feedback or not!

This chapter is centered around the idea of leadership, and so ideas about understanding the needs of other people are discussed here primarily from that perspective. However, we should mention here that it's not just the leader of an organization who can and should have an active role in identifying and understanding the needs of others. People who have much less formal roles may have a very good idea of what's going on, and may be the perfect people to speak up about what's really happening and what should occur. It may even be better that way, because then more people become "stakeholders" in the group's well-being.

So, not only should the effective leader have a good understanding of people's needs, she should also be open and encouraging of having others identify individual and group needs as well.

Let's look now at some specific ways leaders (and others!) can better understand what people need.

Ask people what they need

When you want to know something, there is simply no replacement for asking people --and then really, completely, listening to their answers, and not just to what you want to hear. There are many different ways to ask people things. Depending on what information you want, different ways are more or less appropriate. Some include:

  • Needs assessment surveys are a particularly good way to find out the needs of large groups of people, such as residents of a large neighborhood.
  • Focus groups are a good way to find out the needs of a specific group as they relate to a particular issue. For example, an organization might hold a focus group on educational needs with Hispanic teenagers, or a focus group with older women on their health needs.
  • Formal interviews are another way to ask people about their needs.
  • One-on-one conversations are often excellent ways to ask people in a less formal manner what they need. A casual conversation in the hallway or over coffee can give you an excellent idea of what's going on with others in the organization.
  • A suggestion box or a wish list in an area that's easy for everyone to get to offers people the opportunity to make suggestions and requests in an anonymous manner. This may be particularly helpful in a very large organization, where people don't know each other as well, and so trust and comfort levels may not be as high as they are in smaller organizations.

Note that these different techniques for needs identification won't work equally well for each for the five needs listed at the beginning of this section. For example, you probably wouldn't expect a needs assessment survey to reveal too much about personal needs. By the same token, maintaining a good relationship with others in the organization might not tell you too much about root or causal needs, as this often requires a more thoughtful and formal type of analysis. And so for different situations, you will want to choose carefully the method that makes the most sense to get the information you want.

It can also be helpful to use more than one technique to obtain information. For example, your group might conduct a needs assessment survey to find out what members of your organization want, and use information you get from the survey in casual follow-up conversations with members.

Another important consideration is the number of people whose needs and concerns you are interested in learning about. If you have a very small group, you might be able to talk to everyone about their point of view. However, if you want to know what everyone in a community of 20,000 people thinks, that's not always going to be possible.

If you run into a situation like this, where you are unable to ask everyone their needs, try to decide the best people to ask. These might be "key informants" --people from whom you have gotten reliable information in the past --or other community or opinion leaders. Part of knowing who to go to simply comes with experience. Usually, after working with an organization for a long time, you know who to go to in order to find out what's happening --what the word is on the street or behind the camera.

However, if you don't know who usually has the inside scoop on what's going on, you can ask about people about that, too. It's especially important when you are an official group leader (the director or project manager, for example) or an outsider to the community to learn as quickly as you can who others see as unofficial leaders.

A word of caution: Be careful when you are choosing your "key informants" or other opinion leaders that you are getting an honest representation of what the majority of people you are interested in learning about need. Choosing certain people to listen to either primarily or completely can introduce bias --you may hear only what a few people think, instead of the majority of opinions.

Maintain good relationships

If people feel comfortable with a leader, they will come up and tell him or her what's needed (whether the leader wants to hear it or not!).

Some of the most important things a leader can do to build and maintain relationships are:

  • Build relationships one at a time. Fortunately or unfortunately, there are no short cuts. Sending out a newsletter helps you keep in touch with lots of folks, but it's no substitute for getting to know the people you work with.
  • Be friendly and make a connection. This may seem self-evident, but a friendly word or smile can make someone's day. Try to find something in common --all of us want to have close connections with our fellow humans.
  • Ask people questions. People love to talk about themselves and about what they think. If you ask people about themselves and then take the time to listen attentively, they can become your fast friends.
  • Tell people about yourself. People won't trust you unless you are willing to trust them. Tell them what you genuinely care about and what you think.
  • Go to places and do things. When asked why he robbed banks, the robber replied, "Because that's where the money is." If you want to make friends, you have to go where the people are: picnics, conferences, events, fund raisers, parties, playgrounds, bowling alleys, Little League games, bake sales, etc.
  • Accept people the way they are. You don't have to agree with them all the time in order to form a relationship with them. No one likes to be judged.
  • Be persistent. People are often shy and suspicious. It takes a while to win trust. You can usually form a relationship if you stick with it.
  • Invite people to get involved. People want to become part of something bigger than themselves. Many people are looking for an opportunity to meet other people who share common goals. At the worst, people will be flattered that you invited them to join.
  • Enjoy people. If you genuinely enjoy people, others will be attracted to your attitude. People will more likely want to be around you.

Do your research

This is especially true if you are trying to identify community or causal needs. You will want to look up data, studies other people might have done in the community, and other information. You might also want to do a comparison: how closely are what people think are needs in the community supported by statistics? For example, community members might tell you in a needs assessment survey that they think there is a need for additional police officers to decrease the crime rate in the community. When you look at the hard data, however, you might find that other communities similar to yours actually have fewer police officers but a lower crime rate. The problem --the need -- in your community is different from what people perceive it to be.

While doing a lot of this research is very important for groups trying to find the needs of an entire community, it can certainly be scaled back and done on a more casual level to learn about the needs and wants of individual members of the group. For example, a boss can pay attention to what employees like and don't like, and take the time to learn about their interests and their families. While this isn't necessarily scientific research, it can help a lot in understanding what group members want. For example, if the leader of an organization knows that many of the volunteers have small children, he might consider setting up child care for times when there are many volunteers working together.

Make connections between people, our work, and the larger community

This is important not only for understanding needs, but for filling them as well. As much as we might get caught up in it, our work and our relationships don't exist in a vacuum. They are touched and shaped by many different forces. A savvy leader will learn how to make connections between things she sees and hears in different parts of her life: on the news, at her daughter's school, or at work. By looking at the community first in community problems, needs and solutions will occur when they are least expected.

For example, maybe your organization is interested in starting an after-school program to offer safe activities for kids to do after school, but the program director is having a hard time coming up with activities. Then, you see a story on the news about Native American storytellers. It sparks your imagination to have storytellers from different cultures come in once a week, giving the students something fun to do that will teach them respect for other cultures.

Be accessible

It's essential for the leader to be available and accessible. The leader should be right on the scene, at least some of the time, not always at business meetings, or at out-of-state conferences, or hidden away in an office. The leader needs to walk the floor, pick up the phone, talk to people in the halls. By being available and accessible (and by showing some personal caring) members will develop trust in the leader. They are then likely to open up much more freely.

Institutionalize the process of getting feedback from group members

That is, find a way that works for your organization to get constant, honest feedback from people you want to hear from, and then develop a way to make sure that continues to happen.

How do you get this feedback? Some general ways to do this include:

  • Regular informal checking-in with members
  • Scheduling a formal feedback time at the end of meetings. How does everyone think it went? What did people think?
    • There are two basic variations of this you might consider using. The first is to use what is sometimes called a "plus-delta technique." At the end of a meeting, the facilitator asks members to list the things they liked about the meeting, and also the things that should be improved or changed. These are, respectively, the pluses and the deltas. They are written down, and presumably used as corrective feedback for the next meeting. A similar technique can be applied to events other than regular meetings.
    • You might also have written feedback forms that can be filled out at the end of the meeting. It doesn't have to be long, or complex; a few simple questions might do the trick. One advantage of these is that they can be anonymous; people are more likely to give their true opinions of what has happened, including negative or critical opinions that they might not have been comfortable saying aloud.
  • Schedule an occasional-but-regular full meeting around feedback. A school in the Northeast, for example, held "general staff meetings." They were held monthly, and everyone was invited. The Superintendent made a few opening announcements; then the floor was open. Everyone who worked there, from top administrators down to custodians, could comment about whatever issue was on their mind, and many did just that. Not only did useful feedback get expressed, but these meetings were also general morale-builders for the organization. And not surprisingly, the Superintendent (the official leader here) gained respect for holding these meetings and opening up the process.
  • In another variation that is best suited to larger organizations, it's possible for the leader to hold regular office hours that are open to anyone. For example, in Massachusetts, former Governor Weld used to have citizen's office hours. Anyone, in theory, could call up and make an appointment, and spend a few minutes telling the government what was on his or her mind.
  • Finally, the organization might consider the use of retreats, which give longer and more extensive ways to get more detailed feedback.

In Summary

One of your most important responsibilities as a leader is to understand the needs of those around you --both the people you work with and the community you serve. Understanding the needs of your staff and volunteers will help you build morale and reach shared goals, while understanding the community's needs is a crucial first step in addressing them. To understand people's needs, you usually need to ask what they are, and then be prepared to act on what they tell you. Your staff --and your community --deserve no less!

Jenette Nagy
Marya Axner

Print Resources

Covey, S. (1992). Principle-centered leadership. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Gardner, J. (1990). On leadership. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Greenleaf, R. (1976). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New York, NY: Paulist Press.