McCelelland’s achievement motivation theory

According to McClelland “Everyone is more strongly motivated by some needs and less strongly by other needs. Everyone has all three of these motives but simply with a different relative degree. The result of the needs is a unique mix that gives one its personality” (McClelland, 1987).


What McClelland found out during his research was that “80% of the daily mental activity could be related to three social motives. They are with other words those motives that are most common in the everyday life” (Théresia, 2002). Though the needs for security and nurturing are legitimate and widely studied motives they do occupy so little of most western civilized people's regular concerns that McClelland meant that it is possible to ignore them to a wide extend.

McClelland identified three main motives which are:

Achievement: 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 need for achievement individuals preferswork that has a moderate probability of success, ideally a 50% chance. Achievers needregular feedback in order to monitor the progress of their achievements. They prefereither to work alone or with other high achievers.

Affiliation: Those with a high need for affiliation need harmonious relationships with other people and need to feel accepted by other people. They tend to conform to the norms of their work group. High need for affiliation individuals prefers work that provides significant personal interaction. They perform well in customer service and client interaction situations.

Power: 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 perceived as undesirable. Persons who need institutional 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.

“McClelland has also suggested that as effective managers need to be successful leaders and to influence other people, they should possess a high need for power. However the effective manager also scores high on inhibition” (Mullins, 2010).


D. C. McClelland. (1961). The Achieving Society. Free Press, New York

David C. McClelland, "Achievement Motivation Can Be Developed," Harvard Business Review 43 (November–December 1965), pp. 68.