David McClelland’s Theory on Motivation 1

By Chris Simmons

David C. McClelland and his Harvard associates theorized that human motivation is dominated by three distinct needs: Power (i.e., control, influence, authority); Affiliation (i.e., belonging or relationships); and Achievement (i.e., task accomplishment). Like any other human need, the balance between the three motivational drivers varies by individual. That said, a person’s inspiration and effectiveness is maximized by providing him/her with opportunities that provide the perfect blend of their needs.

For example, an individual motivated by affiliation does NOT want to stand out from the group. As such, to be singled out for public praise runs counter to their primary motivator. Such praise would not be well received and could, in fact, be embarrassing or uncomfortable. Instead, to thank him/her in private is far more effective and appreciated.

Characteristics or Indicators

Power
• Seeks leadership positions.
• Tends to collect status/prestige items.
• Often forceful, outspoken, and demanding
• Generally wins arguments.
• Displays a strong need to influence, teach or manage others.

Affiliation
• Enjoys collaboration and group work.
• Avoids conflict; trends towards “peace-keeper” roles.
• Tends to join organizations.
• Seeks and sustains friendships.
• Does well as a mediator or in jobs devoted to serving others.
• Prefers social or attitudinal feedback.
• Seeks acceptance.

Achievement
• Takes personal responsibility.
• Values feedback, especially when timely and qualitative.
• Calculating risk-taker.
• Sets high self-standards.
• Prefers solitary/individual work.
• Focused on better performance.
• Seeks challenging opportunities.

Note: McClelland’s Human Motivation Theory is also known as Three Needs Theory, Acquired Needs Theory, Motivational Needs Theory, and the Learned Needs Theory.

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