Overview of the achievement motivation theory

This theory was developed by David McClelland in 1961 and was presented in his book, "The Achieving Society." This theory was influenced by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory where Maslow stated 5 categories of needs. However, in McClelland’s Achievement Theory, the theorist stated that every individual irrespective of their gender, age, and culture, is driven by only 3 types of needs. In addition, he stated one of the three needs dominates the other two and the dominating needs will be influenced by one’s culture and lifestyle. Moreover, McClelland states that people are not inherent but are infused or learned with time and that is the reason this theory is called the Learned Needs Theory.

Visual representation of McClelland’s Achievement Theory

Probing further, below mentioned are the three primary hypotheses that were proposed by McCelland in the theory.

1. The need for achievement (n Ach)

The people included under this category are often motivated by the need to achieve their goals in life. A few of the key features of people included in this category are given below

  • Driven by the urge to excel - These people always look for challenges and have the urge to excel in the given challenges or the task.
  • Mediocre risk tasks - They will always look for the challenges that have a mediocre risk rate of achievement because high-risk tasks will give them a fear of not achieving and low-risk tasks challenges do not give them pleasure of achieving or accomplishing tasks.
  • Requires regular feedback - People under this category always seek continuous feedback on their progress to get positive affirmations or in order to look for the scope of improvement.

2. The need for power (n Pow)

People who like to have power in a hand or like to be in charge in order to dominate or influence others are included under this category. The identifying marks of this category are

  • Want to indulge in competition and win - People of this category like to indulge in competition in order to assert power over others and they seek pleasure in winning.
  • Enjoy status and power - People who have the need for power always like to be in power over others and enjoy the recognition and status in an organization.
  • Like to dominate or win the conversations - They will always try to have an upper hand in the conversation, so that they can dominate or win the conversations.

3. The need for affiliation (nAff)

People under this category love to affiliate and always want to stay in groups and value society and relationships over everything else. They can be identified by the following features

  • Like teamwork over the competition - People under this category usually have the trait of people-pleasing and they prefer collaboration instead of competition in order to avoid conflict.
  • Want to be a part of a group - These people always want to stay in a group and always take challenges that give them the opportunity to socialize and to be a part of a group.
  • Enjoy praises and seek positive affirmations from others - People who are in need of affiliations always perform their tasks with all their energy in order to get praises and affirmations from others.

Moving ahead, after understanding the theory, the next section sheds light on the implication of the theory in a workplace

Implementation of the theory in a workplace

1. Understanding and identifying the dominators

The first step for the manager will be to understand and analyze the employees' behavior and identify the major need that dominates their behavior. This will assist in effectively creating further strategies to keep the employees motivated and satisfied.

2. Assigning the task according to the needs

  • For achievers Always make sure that the people who fit under the category of need for achievement, should be given moderate challenging tasks. This will assist the employers in getting the best out of the achievers in exchange for fulfilling their needs.

  • For power-seekers For the people who like to be in charge of everything, managers should give them managerial roles in order to satisfy their need of asserting power over others and motivating them to give their all in the escalation of the company.

  • For affiliators Managers can always involve the affiliators in the collaborative tasks and let them socialize enough to keep them engaged and motivated. This will assist the managers in managing this category more efficiently.

To continue, this theory holds great importance when it comes to its implementation of this theory in an organization. Below mentioned are some of the key points highlighting the importance of McClelland's achievement theory.

Importance of implementing this theory in a workplace

  • This theory will assist managers or employers to identify the key motivators of their employees in order to make them the best version of themselves. This will assist employees in keeping employees motivated to work for the betterment of the company.
  • When the identified needs of the employees are satisfied, it can lead to motivation and motivation can increase the productivity of the employee. Increased productivity can increase the probability of expansion of the business.
  • This theory can assist in recruiting the best talent by attracting employees by fulfilling their needs based on their behavior.

Probing further, although this theory is much more relatable in the real world, this theory has certain limitations when implied in a workplace.

Limitations of the theory

  • Neglect of basic needs - The main focus of the theory was on power, achievement, and affiliation, however, the theory failed to discuss the basic needs of humans like food, shelter, sleep, etc.
  • A limited number of motivators - The theory focused on only three motivators: Power, Achievement, and Affiliations. However, the theory failed to mention the other motivators such as good wages, job security, and growth opportunities that can affect the motivation of employees.

To substantiate the effect of the theory, a hypothetical example is given below to illustrate the implication in the workplace.

Example of implementing the theory in a workplace

As of March 2022, Tesla has a Market capitalization of $1.032 Trillion and this amount made Tesla the World’s 6th most valuable company. The success of Tesla and the leadership style of CEO, Elon Musk, are not hidden from anyone.

Elon Musk believes that the employees do not serve the company, instead, the company helps them to perform their best possible job which contributes to the growth of the company. Hence, the company makes all the possible efforts to keep the employees happy and motivated.

Implementing McClelland’s Achievement Motivation Theory, we observed that Tesla fulfills the need for power, the need for affiliation, and the need for achievement in the best possible manner to motivate the employees. To elaborate,

1. Need for power

The CEO believes that communication in Tesla should not travel through the chain of command. Instead, they give every individual to make decisions based on their ability and convey it to the management via the shortest route possible. Instead of following a hierarchy, the CEO directs his employees to directly communicate with the concerned person. This satisfies the need for the power of the employees by giving them enough power to make decisions or get involved in the crucial decision-making process.

2. The need for affiliation

Everybody is aware of the fact that Tesla never believed in binding their employees to certain groups or management. Instead, they believe in having fun and bringing revolution at the same time. This assists in satisfying the need for affiliation of the employees because this gives them the liberty to socialize and bring new and innovative ideas that can assist in the growth of the company.

3. Need for achievement

Last but not the least, being an employee-centric company, Tesla believes in celebrating the achievement of every milestone together and believes in appreciating the employees for investing their hard work and dedication towards the growth of the company. These celebrations assist in the attainment of the need for achievements of the employees.

Key Takeaway - Fulfilling all the needs of the theory helped the company in creating a productive and positive environment which further contributes to the success of the company.


Can an individual have a dominant need for more than one motivator?

Yes, an individual can have a dominant need for more than one motivator. Some individuals may exhibit a strong need for both achievement and power, while others may have a combination of affiliation and achievement.

How does McClelland's Achievement Motivation Theory differ from other motivation theories like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs?

McClelland's theory focuses on specific needs, while Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a broader hierarchical framework encompassing a range of human needs.

Why is understanding employee motivation important for organizations?

Understanding employee motivation helps organizations improve job satisfaction, productivity, and overall performance. It allows them to create tailored strategies to engage and retain their workforce effectively.