Theory of Needs (David McClelland)

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Human motivation comprises three dominant needs: the need for achievement, power and affiliation. Explanation of the Theory of Needs of David McClelland. (1961)

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David McClelland Theory of NeedsWhat is the Theory of Needs? Description

The Theory of Needs concept was popularized by American behavioral psychologist David McClelland. Building on earlier work of Henry Murray (1938), McClelland states in 1961 that the motivation of an individual can result from three dominant needs: the Need for Achievement, Power and Affiliation.

  • The Need for Achievement (N-Ach), is the extent to which a person wants to perform difficult and challenging tasks on a high level. Some characteristics of high N-Ach people:

    • They want to have success and need to receive positive feedback often.

    • They seek to stretch themselves and thus tend to avoid both low-risk and high-risk situations. They 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 a result of their own effort. Compare: Attribution Theory

    • They like to work alone or with other high achievers.

    • McClelland believes that these people make the best leaders, although there can be a tendency to demand too much of their staff in the belief that they are all also highly results driven.

  • The Need for Affiliation (N-Affil) means that people seek good interpersonal relations with others. Some characteristics of high N-Affil people:

    • They want to be liked and accepted by others, and attach importance to a personal interaction.

    • They tend to conform to the norms of their work group.

    • They strive to make and keep relationships with a high amount of trust and mutual understanding.

    • They prefer cooperation over competition.

    • Obviously, they perform well in customer service and client interaction situations.

    • McClelland believed that a strong Need for Affiliation undermines the objectivity and decision-making capability of managers.

  • The Need for Power (N-Pow) is typical for people who like to be in charge.

    • They can be grouped into two types: personal and institutional power.

      • People with a high need for personal power want to direct and influence others.

      • A high need for institutional power means that people like to organize the efforts of others to achieve the goals of the organization.

    • High power people enjoy competition and status-oriented positions.

    • While these people are attracted to leadership roles, they may not possess the required flexibility and people-centered skills.

    • Managers with a high need for institutional power tend to be more effective than those with a high need for personal power.

Generally, all three needs are present in each individual. They are shaped and acquired over time by the cultural background of the individual and his life experience. Training can be used to modify a need profile. Nevertheless, one of the needs is the dominant one, also depending on the personality. Unlike Maslow, McClelland did not specify any transition stages among the needs.
The importance of the different needs at work depends upon the position one occupies. The need for achievement and the need for power are typical for middle and top managers.


McClelland's concept is also referred to as the Learned Needs Theory, Acquired Needs Theory, and Three Needs Theory.


Origin of the Theory of Needs. History

McClelland's Theory of Needs was based on the Theory of Personality by Henry Murray (1938). Murray described a comprehensive model of human needs and motivational processes.


Assessing the Needs of McClelland. Test

The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) can help a person to find out which type of job would be preferable according to his dominant need. By showing the test person a series of ambiguous pictures, he or she is then asked to develop a spontaneous story for each picture. The underlying assumption is that the test person will project his or her own needs into the story. The score can then be used to recommend a special type of job for which the person might be well suited.


Book: David McClelland - The Achieving Society -


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Compare with the Theory of Needs: ERG Theory  |  Herzberg Two Factor Theory  |  Hierarchy of Needs  |  Whole Brain Model  |  Spiral Dynamics  |  Expectancy Theory  |  Path-Goal Theory  |  Theory X Theory Y  |  Cultural Dimensions  |  Hawthorne Effect  |  Leadership Continuum


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