Overview Employee Motivation Theories
In his in his 1961 book ‘The Achieving Society’, David McClelland expounds on his acquired-needs theory. He proposed that an individual’s specific needs are acquired over time and are shaped by one’s life experiences. He described three types of motivational need. A person’s motivation and effectiveness in certain job functions are influenced by these three needs.
  • n-ach – achievement motivation
    The n-ach person is ‘achievement motivated’ and therefore seeks achievement, attainment of realistic but challenging goals, and advancement in the job. There is a strong need for feedback as to achievement and progress, and a need for a sense of accomplishment. People with a high need for achievement seek to excel and thus tend to avoid both low-risk and high-risk situations. Achievers avoid low-risk situations because the easily attained success is not a genuine achievement. In high-risk projects, achievers see the outcome as one of chance rather than one’s own effort. High n-ach individuals prefer work that has a moderate probability of success, ideally a 50% chance. They prefer either to work alone or with other high achievers.
  • n-pow – authority/power motivation
    The n-pow person is ‘authority motivated’. This driver produces a need to be influential, effective and to make an impact. There is a strong need to lead and for their ideas to prevail. There is also motivation and need towards increasing personal status and prestige.

    A person’s need for power can be one of two types – personal and institutional. Those who need personal power want to direct others, and this need often is percieved as undesirable. Persons who need institutional power (also known as social power) want to organize the efforts of others to further the goals of the organization. Managers with a high need for institutional power tend to be more effective than those with a high need for personal power.

  • n-affil – affiliation motivation
    The n-affil person is ‘affiliation motivated’, and has a need for friendly relationships and is motivated towards interaction with other people. They need harmonious relationships with other people and need to feel accepted by other people. The affiliation driver produces motivation and need to be liked and held in popular regard. These people are team players. They tend to conform to the norms of their work group. High n-affil individuals prefer work that provides significant personal interaction. They perform well in customer service and client interaction situations.

McClelland’s acquired needs theory states that most people possess and exhibit a combination of these characteristics. Some people exhibit a strong bias to a particular motivational need, and this motivational or needs ‘mix’ consequently affects their behaviour and working/managing style.

Mcclelland’s achievement motivation theory suggests that a strong n-affil ‘affiliation-motivation’ undermines a manager’s objectivity, because of their need to be liked, and that this affects a manager’s decision-making capability. A strong n-pow ‘authority-motivation’ will produce a determined work ethic and commitment to the organisation, and while n-pow people are attracted to the leadership role, they may not possess the required flexibility and people-centred skills.

McClelland’s motivation theory argues that n-ach people with strong ‘achievement motivation’ make the best leaders, although there can be a tendency to demand too much of their staff in the belief that they are all similarly and highly achievement-focused and results driven, which of course most people are not.



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McClelland’s achievement motivation theory in work situations

McClelland’s acquired needs are found to varying degrees in all workers and managers, and this mix of motivational needs characterises a person’s or manager’s style and behaviour, both in terms of being motivated, and in the management and motivation others.

People with different needs are motivated differently.

  • High need for achievement (n-ach)
    High achievers should be given challenging projects with reachable goals. They should be provided frequent feedback. While money is not an important motivator in itself. Rather, it is an effective form of feedback.
  • High need for affiliation (n-affil)
    Employees with a high affiliation need perform best in a cooperative environment.
  • High need for power (n-pow)
    Management should provide power seekers the opportunity to manage others.

Note that McClelland’s acquired needs theory allows for the shaping of a person’s needs; training programs can be used to modify one’s need profile.

Relation of McClelland’s achievement motivation theory to other theories

McClelland’s concept of achievement motivation is also related to Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory. People with high achievement motivation tend to be interested in the motivators (the job itself).

Achievement-motivated (n-ach) people want feedback. They want to know how well they are doing on their job. On the other hand, people with low achievement motivation are more concerned about the environment. They want to know how people feel about them rather than how well they are doing.


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