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McClelland's Achievement-Based Motivational Theory and Models

David McClelland pioneered workplace motivational thinking, developing achievement-based motivational theory and models, and promoted improvements in employee assessment methods, advocating competency-based assessments and tests, arguing them to be better than traditional IQ and personality-based tests. 

His ideas have since been widely adopted in many organisations, and relate closely to the theory of Frederick Herzberg.

Three Types of Motivation

David McClelland is most noted for describing three types of motivational need, which he identified in his 1961 book, The Achieving Society:

  1. Achievement motivation (n-ach)
  2. Authority/power motivation (n-pow)
  3. Affiliation motivation (n-affil)

These 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 of others.

1. The Need for Achievement (n-ach)

  • 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.

2. The Need for Authority and Power (n-pow)

  • 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 a need towards increasing personal status and prestige.

3. The Need for Affiliation (n-affil)

  • The n-affil person is 'affiliation motivated', has a need for friendly relationships and is motivated towards interaction with other people. 
  • The affiliation driver produces motivation and needs to be liked and held in popular regard. 
  • These people are team players.

McClelland's Three Types of Motivation Practical Application

McClelland said 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. 

  1. Mcclelland suggested 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. McClelland 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 focused and results-driven, which of course most people are not.

McClelland's Theory Experimental Evidence

McClelland's particular fascination was with achievement motivation, and this laboratory experiment illustrates one aspect of his theory about the effect of achievement on people's motivation.

McClelland asserted via this experiment that while most people do not possess strong achievement-based motivation, those who do, display a consistent behaviour in setting goals:

  • Volunteers were asked to throw rings over pegs rather like the fairground game; no distance was stipulated, and most people seemed to throw from arbitrary, random distances, sometimes close, sometimes farther away. 
  • However, a small group of volunteers, whom McClelland suggested were strongly achievement-motivated, took some care to measure and test distances to produce an ideal challenge - not too easy, and not impossible. 
  • Interestingly a parallel exists in biology, known as the 'overload principle', which is commonly applied to fitness and exercising, ie., in order to develop fitness and/or strength the exercise must be sufficiently demanding to increase existing levels, but not so demanding as to cause damage or strain. McClelland identified the same need for a 'balanced challenge' in the approach of achievement-motivated people.

McClelland contrasted achievement-motivated people with gamblers and dispelled a common pre-conception that n-ach 'achievement-motivated' people are big risk-takers. On the contrary, typically, these individuals set goals which they can influence with their effort and ability, and as such, the goal is considered to be achievable. 

This determined results-driven approach is almost invariably present in the character make-up of all successful business people and entrepreneurs.

Characteristics and Attitudes of Achievement-Motivated People

McClelland suggested other characteristics and attitudes of achievement-motivated people:

  1. Achievement is more important than material or financial reward.
  2. Achieving the aim or task gives greater personal satisfaction than receiving praise or recognition.
  3. Financial reward is regarded as a measurement of success, not an end in itself.
  4. Security is not a prime motivator, nor is status.
  5. Feedback is essential, because it enables measurement of success, not for reasons of praise or recognition (the implication here is that feedback must be reliable, quantifiable and factual).
  6. They constantly seek improvements and ways of doing things better.
  7. They will logically favour jobs and responsibilities that naturally satisfy their needs, i.e. offer flexibility and opportunity to set and achieve goals, e.g., sales and business management, and entrepreneurial roles.

McClelland firmly believed that achievement-motivated people are generally the ones who make things happen and get results and that this extends to getting results through the organisation of other people and resources, although as stated earlier, they often demand too much of their staff because they prioritise achieving the goal above the many varied interests and needs of people.