McClelland Motivation Theory

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McClelland motivation theory - need theory on achievement | ToolsHero

This article explains the McClelland Motivation Theory, developed by David McClelland, in a practical way. After reading you will understand the basics of this powerful motivation theory.

The McClelland Motivation Theory

The American psychologist David McClelland studied the way in which people satisfy their needs.

What motivates people and what motivators are learned?

According to David McClelland, people have motivating drivers that are directly linked to need regardless of age, gender, culture or race.

As a result of the McClelland Motivation Theory, David McClelland identified four types of motivational need:

  1. Need for achievement
  2. Need for power
  3. Need for affiliation
  4. Need for avoidance

Need for achievement

Generally speaking, people want to accomplish something in life.

This could mean starting a large family for some and a well-paid job and an illustrious career for others. David McClelland studied what drives people to achieve something.

What motivates them and how can they make a contribution to society? Upon completing his study, he distinguished four characteristics that are consistent with the need for achievement: striving for an average task complexity, responsibility for own performance, the need for feedback and the use of innovation/creativity.

Need for power

People with a need for power, attach great value to status, reputation and recognition.

They have a need to be perceived as important and they have a need to direct and influence others. According to David McClelland, this type of person enjoys competition and winning.

When this need is great, they will not be open to feedback. This need may consist of personal power and of institutional power. Those who focus on personal power have the desire to have control over others.

Those who are focused on institutional power, like to organize the efforts of more people to further the company’s goals.

Need for affiliation

People are a gregarious bunch and they want to belong to the group. When the need for affiliation is high, they want to be liked and they will conform to the group’s behaviour and wishes. In this case, they will favour cooperation over competition.

Therefore, the need for affiliation does not go well with the need for power.

Need for avoidance

This needs category was added later by David McClelland. When people do not wish to perform at the forefront and prefer to avoid unpleasant situations, this need will surface.

People have fear of failure, fear of rejection and even fear of success. By avoiding situations that may trigger these fears, they think to have found a safe solution.

McClelland Iceberg model

David McClelland developed the iceberg model using the McClelland Motivation Theory.

McClelland Motivation Theory and Iceberg model, the need theory on achievement | ToolsHero

The Iceberg model of David McClelland looks at a person’s visible behaviour, knowledge and skills and the underlying unexpressed and unconscious deeper layers.

In general, a person’s knowledge, skills and behaviour can be found above the waterline of the iceberg. The central element is what they do.

Below the waterline we find think and want, which focus on abstract terms such as standards, values and beliefs, self-esteem, characteristics, personality and motives.

These four invisible layers could reinforce one another as motives.

However, they may also block the visible behaviour of the person in question,

Above the waterline

Anything above the waterline is powerful and tangible in which the focus is not on ‘what’ but on ‘how’.

In an organization this can be translated into an organizational vision and strategy, content, structure, finance and especially the result of work, working arrangements, training and giving feedback.

This will create a guideline for employees.

Below the waterline

Below the waterline things are much more abstract and they are fed by the undercurrent.

It is about the ever-present feeling without it being tangible.

The relationships between people (interaction), their feelings, their expressiveness, sense of purpose can all be found below the waterline. The organizational culture is also created below the waterline.

The events below the waterline affect the events above the waterline. This is the reason why both levels must be taken into consideration in change processes.

Linking with the motivating drivers

David McClelland provides an insight into the (learned) needs of someone by his McClelland Motivation Theory and he links this to what this person does (above water level) and what they think and want (below the water level).

In an organization it is interesting to know what motivates employees in a team.

By looking at their behavior, they can be asked what they would ultimately like to achieve and what their real needs are.

It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Is the McClelland Motivation Theory applicable in today’s management and development organizations? Do you recognize the practical explanation of do you have more suggestions? What are your success factors which you would like to share?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

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More information

  1. Burnham, D. H. (2008). Power Is the Great Motivator. Harvard Business Review Press.
  2. McClelland, D. C., Koestner, R., & Weinberger, J. (1989). How do self-attributed and implicit motives differ?. Psychological review, 96(4), 690.
  3. McClelland, D. C. (1987). Human motivation. CUP Archive.
  4. McClelland, D. C. (1985). How motives, skills, and values determine what people do. American Psychologist, 40(7), 812.

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