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McClelland’s Acquired Needs Motivation Theory

McClelland’s Acquired Needs Motivation Theory says that humans have three types of emotional needs: achievement, power and affiliation. Individuals can have any mix of these needs. Their motivations and behaviors are shaped by the strength and blend of their specific needs.

Summary by The World of Work Project

McClelland’s Acquired Needs Motivation Theory

David McClelland’s motivation theory, which is more formally known as the Expectancy Value Theory of Motivation, states that humans have a total of three core types emotional needs, which they acquire as a result of their life journeys. Given that this model focuses on needs, it is considered a content theory of motivation. The needs the model considers are:

<!-- wp:hMcClelland's Acquired Needs Motivation Theory detailes three types of needseading --> <h2>Learning More</h2> <!-- /wp:heading -->  <!-- wp:paragraph --> <p>We've written several articles on various <a href="https://worldofwork.io/2019/02/motivation-theories-context-and-process/">content and process theories of motivation</a> that you might find interesting. These include articles on <a href="https://worldofwork.io/2019/02/adams-equity-theory-of-motivation/">Adam's equity theory</a> and <a href="https://worldofwork.io/2019/02/herzbergs-two-factor-theory-of-motivation/">Herzberg's two factor theory of motivation</a>. We've also written an introductory post of <a href="https://worldofwork.io/2019/02/adairs-8-basic-rules-of-motivation/">Adair's 8 basic rule of motivation</a> and have a guest post on <a href="https://worldofwork.io/2020/03/reversal-theory-motivation-and-emotion-in-motion/">Reversal Theory</a>. You can listen to our podcast on reversal theory below:</p> <!-- /wp:paragraph -->  <!-- wp:html --> <iframe style="border: none" src="//html5-player.libsyn.com/embed/episode/id/13248644/height/90/theme/custom/thumbnail/yes/direction/backward/render-playlist/no/custom-color/276571/" scrolling="no" allowfullscreen="" webkitallowfullscreen="" mozallowfullscreen="" oallowfullscreen="" msallowfullscreen="" width="100%" height="90"></iframe> <!-- /wp:html -->  <!-- wp:paragraph --> <p></p> <!-- /wp:paragraph -->
  • Achievement (getting things done)
  • Power (having influence over others)
  • Affiliation (having good relationships)

McClelland says that these needs are scalar and everyone has a blend of them, though usually one is dominant.

The blend and strength of an individual’s needs shapes their behaviors and motivations in work, and in the wider world. The different needs bring different strengths, weaknesses, preferred ways of working and behavioral risks into the workplace.

Awareness of your own needs can help you improve your own self-awareness, self-management and decision-making. Similarly, knowing the needs of the people you work with (or for) can help you manage them more effectively.

While many people may have a sense of their own needs, most people chose not to fully reveal them to others. McClelland uses an iceberg analogy to explain this.

What we see of others, the bit above the surface, is based on what they do and includes their knowledge, skills and behaviors. The things that we don’t see, the bit below the surface, is their true underlying self. This includes their motives, personality characteristics, values, beliefs and self-opinions. This split of external and internal presentation is very similar to the concept of personality and character ethics.

We only see a little bit of who people are, the bit below the surface may be much more complicated…

The three emotional needs

Most individuals have a dominant emotional need. The emotional need which is dominant will help shape an individual’s feelings, actions and behaviors. It will also go some way towards shaping their preferences in the working environment. It may also shape their strengths and potential risks as both part of a team or as a leader.

The need for Achievement

Some people need to overcome challenges and succeed.

The first need detailed in McClelland’s Acquired Needs Motivation Theory is the need for achievement.

The need for achievement presents itself as an emotional drive towards progressing quickly, delivering tasks, succeeding, attaining high levels of performance and other potentially competitive outcomes.

Work preferences

Individuals with a high level of emotional need for achievement want to be constantly overcoming challenging, yet achievable, tasks. They thrive on being slightly stretched and on the feeling of reward they receive when they complete a deliverable.

These individuals have a moderate level of risk tolerance in relation to the work they like to do. They know that if their activities are too risky they may fail and not receive their hit of achievement they desire. However, if they are not risky enough, their achievements won’t feel truly rewarding.

Strengths and risks

Individuals with a high level of emotional need for achievement often have high levels of drive. They can be a great asset to a team when they are being well managed and things are going well. When they are focused, they have the ability to produce a high volume of high quality outputs. To keep them performing at their best, try to provide them with stimulation. They need challenge, recognition and active management to the ensure the stretch and leadership attention they desire.

When things are not going well, though, these individuals can also feel frustrated. They can become bored or impatient, which can lead to some poorer behaviors. If this happens, overcome it by reengaging them through a new set of challenges and an opportunity to deliver.

As a leader

Individuals with a high level of emotional need for achievement can be very effective leaders. Their desire for achievement means that they will face into their work and drive their teams towards high volumes of work and a high quality of delivery.

Unfortunately, this drive can also be a bit of an Achilles’ heel for these leaders. If they do not check their drive, and effectively manage their own teams, these individuals run the risk of overworking their team members and ultimately losing their follower-ship and support. They also face the risk of personal burn-out. They may need help to give themselves space to recover from the exertions of their work.

The need for Power

The second need detailed in McClelland’s Acquired Needs Motivation Theory is the need for power.

The need for power presents itself as an emotional drive towards status, influence, control over others and winning. Individuals with a high need for power desire respect and authority over others.

Some people just feel an emotional need to be the boss.

Work preferences

Individuals with a high level of emotional need for power want to be constantly competing with, directing, managing and exerting influence over others. They thrive on winning in competitions with others and the sense of increased status that winning brings them.

These individuals typically end up with high levels of risk tolerance. Their often highly competitive natures and their need for ever increasing status means they may take ever increasing risks in an effort to increase their status and control.

Strengths and risks

Individuals with a high level of emotional need for power are often tenacious and resolute, willing and able to make and deliver on difficult decisions, and willing to do what it takes to achieve their goals.

Individuals with a high level of emotional need for power can be a mixed blessing within a team environment. While their needs and desires are aligned to those of the team or organization, their drive for power can be a helpful tool in motivating them, and others around them.

However, it the objectives of an individual with a high emotional need for power become separated from the objectives of an organization, these individuals will usually pursue their own goals, even to the detriment of the organization. It’s important for those leading individuals with a high drive for power to align their goals with the organization’s goals.

As a leader

Individuals with a high level of emotional need for power can be very effective leaders in specific situations. Their desire for obtaining and maintaining power and status means they are often willing to make difficult decisions and see through difficult objectives, where they think these objectives will help their personal power goals.

Clearly though, individuals with a high emotional need for power also bring many risks when they are in leadership positions. Perhaps the greatest risk associated with these leaders relates to the cultures they create. Leaders with a high emotional need for emotional power often seek loyalty or subservience in others almost above all else. When this happens, organizational cultures become toxic and fearful and organizational performance often reduces.

Another important risk these leaders bring at an organizational level, is the risk of these leaders increasing their own power and status at a cost to the organization. Examples of this type of activity could include inflating team sizes, taking on work from other divisions, undermining other leaders and generally doing whatever it takes to increase their status. In some instances these individuals may see status and power as zero-sum games (which we’ve yet to write about). This means they may seek to undermine the status and power of others to increase their own status and power.

The need for Affiliation

The third need detailed in McClelland’s Acquired Needs Motivation Theory is the need for affiliation.

The need for affiliation presents itself as an emotional drive towards being liked and accepted. Individuals with a high need for affiliation desire having agreeable and collaborative working relationships with others and a harmonious social environment.

For some people, getting along well with others is the most important thing.

Work preferences

Individuals with a high level of emotional need for affiliation want to be constantly working in an environment where people feel welcomed, included, harmonious and collaborative. They are often socially perceptive and work towards maintaining effective social relationships and creating positive environments.

These individuals typically end up with fairly low levels of risk tolerance. Their desire for social harmony means they don’t want to “rock the boat” or take on activities that may upset people or lead to conflict.

Strengths and risks

Individuals with a high level of emotional need for affiliation can be a real asset for a team. They often focus on pulling people together, creating social links and helping teams form. In addition, they can be motivating, enthusiastic, engaging and drive real team delivery. They are very much at their best when working towards a common and collaborative goal with others.

It’s important though from a leadership perspective to help these individuals focus on their deliverables as well as their social relationships and structures. Often these individuals will be willing to reduce the pace or quality of their deliverables if doing so may create more social harmony.

To help these individuals remain at their best, it’s important to focus on the culture of the team and to create a collaborative environment. This can be done in part by creating collaborative goals or objectives, by building team relationships through things like team building activities and by seeking to minimize conflict, or at least explain the benefits of conflict to these individuals.

As a leader

Individuals with a high level of emotional need for affiliation can be very effective leaders in specific situations. Their desire for social harmony and conviviality means they can create inclusive cultures, cohesive teams and a real sense of collaboration and commonality.

Unfortunately though, individuals with a high emotional need for affiliation run the risk of putting social harmony ahead of progress and delivery. They may not be as objective as other leaders and there is a definite risk that these leaders will focus more on outcomes for their people than for the business.

Learning More

We’ve written several articles on various content and process theories of motivation that you might find interesting. These include articles on Adam’s equity theory and Herzberg’s two factor theory of motivation. We’ve also written an introductory post of Adair’s 8 basic rule of motivation and have a guest post on Reversal Theory. You can listen to our podcast on reversal theory below:

The World of Work Project View:

McClelland’s Acquired Needs Motivation Theory is a simple but useful way to think about your own drivers at work, or those of the people you work with. To get the most out of it, it may be worth reflecting on yourself and determining which emotional needs you most associate with. Once you’ve done this, you can think what your own needs profile might indicate about the risks and strengths that you bring to your role. Depending on how you feel, it might be worth having a discussion with your line manager about this.

Like all models that group people into specific categories, this model shouldn’t be considered as definitive. Instead, it should be used as a basis for self-reflection, coaching conversations or team discussions.

As a nearly final thought on this model, senior leaders should focus on and search for individuals in their teams with high levels of emotional need for power. These individuals, while hugely useful in certain circumstances, also have the ability to create hugely toxic cultures, which will damage an organization in the longer term. They are almost certainly difficult to spot though as they may adopt a “kiss up and kick down” approach to their corporate lives.

It’s worth noting that later in his career McClelland added a fourth need, the need to avoid things. We’ve taken the decision to avoid that one all together though in this post…

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

The original work behind this topic was completed by the American Psychologist David McClelland. You can read more about it specifically in his 1961 book: “The Achieving Society“.

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