McClelland’s Need Theory in a Managerial Context

· January 21, 2019
McClelland’s need theory tries to explain how the need for achievement, power, and affiliation can affect people's actions.

McClelland’s need theory is a motivational model that attempts to explain how the need for achievement, power, and affiliation affects people’s actions in a management setting.

In the early 1940s, Abraham Maslow created his own need theory. This theory identified the basic needs of human beings: physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Two decades later, David McClelland published his book The Achieving Society. In this book, McClelland identified three motivations he believed we all had: the need for achievement, power, and affiliation. In fact, people have different traits depending on their dominant motivation.

According to McClelland’s need theory, these motivations are acquired. This is the reason why the theory is sometimes also called the theory of the acquired needs.

Dominant motivations

McClelland says that, regardless of our gender, culture, or age, we have three motivations and one of them is dominant. This dominant motivation greatly depends on our life experiences.

A motivated woman explained by McClelland's need theory.

The three dominant motivations McClelland identified are:

  • Need for achievement: People whose boosting motivation is the need for achievement are focused on setting and achieving challenging goals and they’re good at taking calculated risks in order to reach their objectives. In addition, they like to constantly get feedback on their progress and accomplishments. They usually prefer to work alone.
  • Need for affiliation: People whose dominant motivation is the need for affiliation always want to belong in a group. For them, it’s more important to cooperate than compete. Plus, they don’t like risky challenges or uncertain situations. They tend to agree with everything the rest of the group says or wants to do.
  • Need for power: People with this dominant motivation want to take control and influence others. They like winning arguments, competing and winning, and being acknowledged and esteemed.

Use of McClelland’s need theory

From a managerial point of view, McClelland’s need theory can help identify the main motivations of team members and, thus, influence the decision and feedback processes, as well as incentives and rewards. These motivations can also be used to assign work according to each team member’s traits, which can lead to improved performance.

Need for achievement

The need for achievement is when a person wants to excel at everything they do. It’s the need that pushes a person to work and even fight for the outcome they want to accomplish. People with this dominant need want to excel and particularly avoid:

  • Low-risk or small-reward situations.
  • Too difficult or high-risk situations.

Individuals with this dominant need generally have a strong desire to set difficult goals and accomplish them. They prefer to work in an environment that’s focused on getting specific results and they always appreciate any feedback on their work.

Those who are inspired by achievement take calculated risks to accomplish their goals and they tend to avoid both high-risk and low-risk situations. They often prefer to work alone. People who are greatly motivated by achievement believe in a hierarchical structure, mainly derived from achievements at the workplace.

Also, when it comes to feedback, people who are greatly motivated by this need appreciate balanced and fair evaluations. They want to know what they’re doing right and wrong so they can improve.

Need for affiliation

The need for affiliation is the need to have interpersonal and social relationships with other people or with a particular group of people. People who are motivated by this need always want to work in groups where they can establish friendly and long-lasting relationships. Plus, they need to feel loved by others. They like to collaborate with others in order to compete with them and usually avoid high-risk or uncertain situations.

Individuals motivated by this need feel good when their own group makes them feel like they belong. They like to spend their time socializing and maintaining relationships and they need to feel loved and accepted.

Also, they tend to adhere to societal rules in the workplace and they usually don’t try to change them out of fear of rejection. They prefer collaborating over competing. And they work better in positions where they have to interact with others, such as customer service.

They love receiving personal and individual feedback. It’s also very important for them that others emphasize and acknowledge the way in which they’ve responded to the trust they put in them. Plus, we must keep in mind that these people often don’t want to stand out, which is why it’s better to talk to them in private.

Colleagues gathering hands.

Need for power

The need for power is when a person feels the desire to stay in control, have authority over other people, and influence and change people’s decisions according to their own needs or desires. The need for improving their self-esteem and reputation encourages them a lot. They want people to accept and implement their points of view and ideas over other people’s. Also, they tend to become strong leaders.

There are two types of need for power:

  • Need for personal power.
  • Need for institutional power.

If someone has a need for personal power, they want to control other people. If they have the need for institutional power, they require leadership and coordination from a team to reach a certain common goal.

In any case, competition motivates them and they enjoy winning arguments. Status and acknowledgment are important to them, as well as being the leaders of “the winning team”. They have a lot of self-discipline and expect the same from their coworkers.

You must give people who are motivated by this need direct feedback. In addition, they perform better when the company they work for help them achieve their professional aspirations.

Comparative theories

Another theory that’s similar to McClelland’s is Sirota’s Three-Factor Theory, which suggests three motivators as well: equity/fairness, achievement, and camaraderie.

According to Sirota, everyone starts a new job enthusiastically and motivated to do well. But with time, bad company policies or any other condition makes workers lose their motivation. However, McClelland’s theory claims that motivation is really important to workers.

  • McClelland, D. C. (1961). The Achieving Society. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold
  • McClelland, D. C. (1975). Power: The inner experience. New York: Irvington