McClelland's Theory of Motivation: Achievement Theory

David C. McClelland
David C. McClelland (May 20, 1917 - March 27, 1998) was an American psychologist. He is well known for his work and development of need theory on motivation. David McClelland and his associates began a study of three needs that motivates human behavior that is power, affiliation and achievement in the early 1950s. McClelland believes that each person has a need for all three and other needs but that people differs in the degree to which the various needs motivate their behavior. 

These needs are: 

  • Need for achievement
  • Need for power 
  • Need for affiliation

Applications of McClelland’s Theory

David C. McClelland's Achievement Theory
Since he stated that each person has three needs, these three needs can be abbreviated as “n Ach”, “n Pow” and “n Aff” respectively. They are defined as follows: 

1. Need for Achievement (n Ach)

The need for achievement would fall between needs for esteem and self actualization. This need is satisfied not by the manifestations of success, which confer status, but with the process of carrying work to its successful completion.

This is the drive to excel, to achieve in relation to a set of standard, and to strive to succeed. In other words, need for achievement is a behavior directed towards competition with a standard of excellence. McClelland found that people with a high need for achievement perform better than those with a moderate or low need for achievement and noted regional/national differences in achievement motivation. Through his research, McClelland identified the following three characteristics of high need achievers: 
  • High need achievers have a strong desire to assume personal responsibility for performing a task or finding a solution to a problem. 
  • High need achievers tend to set moderately difficult goals and task calculated risks. 
  • High need achievers have a strong desire for performance feedback. 

Individuals with a high need for achievement generally will take moderate risks, like situations in which they can take personal responsibility for finding solutions to problems and want concrete feedback on their performance. As McClelland points out, “No matter how high a person’s need to achieve may be, he cannot succeed if he has no opportunities, if the organization keeps him from taking initiative, or does not reward him if he does good. Thus, if management wishes to motivate individuals operating on the achievement level, it should assign them tasks that involve a moderate degree of risk of failure, delegate to them enough authority, to take initiative in completing their tasks, and give them periodic, specific feedback on their performance.

2. Need for Power (n Pow)

The need for power is concerned with making an impact on other, the desire to influence other, the ways to change people, and the desire to make a difference in life. People with a high need for power are people who like to be in control of people and events. This results in ultimate satisfaction to man. 

People who have a high need for power are characterized by: 
  • A desire to influence and direct somebody else. 
  • A desire to exercise and control over others. 
  • A concern for maintaining leader-follower relations. 
The need for power is expressed as a desire to influence others. In relation to Maslow’s hierarchy, power would fall somewhere between the needs for esteem and self-actualization. People with a need for power tend to exhibit behaviors such as out-spookiness, forcefulness, willingness to engage in confrontation and a tendency to stand by their original position. They often are persuasive speakers and demand a great deal from others. Management often attracts people with a need for power because of the many opportunities it offers to exercise and increase power. Managers who are motivated by the need for power are not necessarily “power hungry” in the sense in which the expression is often used.

3. Need for Affiliation (n Aff)

The need for affiliation is defined as a desire to establish and maintain friendly and warm relations with other people. The need for affiliation, in many ways, is similar to Maslow’s social needs. The people with high need for affiliation have these characteristics: 
  • They have a strong desire for acceptance and approval from others. 
  • They tend to confirm to the wishes of those people whose friendship and companionship they value. 
  • They give value and feeling to others. 
In conclusion, McClelland’s definitive motive is similar to Maslow's theory. The person is concerned with forming friendly relations with others, desire for companionship, and the desire to help others. People dominated by inflictive need would be attracted to jobs that allow considerable social interactions interpersonal relations. A manager could also facilitate their need satisfaction by spending more time with such individuals and periodically bringing them together as a group.

Limitations of Achievement Theory

  • The theory does not deal fully with the process of motivation and how it really takes place.
  • Persons with high need for achievement expect similar results from others. As a result, they may lack human skills and patience for being effective managers.
  • The use of protective techniques for developing achievement motive is objectionable.
  • The research evidence in support of the achievement motivation theory is fragmentary and doubtful. 

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