Achievement Motivation

McClelland’s Achievement Motivation Theory

McClelland’s Achievement Motivation Theory also called Three-Need Theory was originated from the investigations into the relationship between hunger needs and the extent to which imagery of food dominates the thought process.

The need for achievement is a desire to succeed. Many people have the drive towards achieving something better to differentiate themselves from others. This urge can be defined to overcome obstacles, to exercise power, to strive to do something difficult and even do it as quickly as possible.

The theory was developed by David McClelland and his associates, as they identified the following three main arousal-based and socially developed motives:

  1. Need for Achievement (n-Ach): This is the drive which some people have to pursue and attain goals. An individual with this drive is achievement oriented and wants to undertake set of jobs or activities where one can excel and advance up in the ladder of success.

    McClelland observed that people with a high desire for achievement perform better than those with a moderate or low need for achievement.
  2. Need for Power (n-Pow): This is the desire to be influential— to make impact on others, do something that can change situations, and add value to life. Individuals with high power especially organizational managers make a greater impact on the behavior and performance of others at the workplace.

    The need for power can be summarized as the desire to influence others and control environment. Such power ultimately culminates in increased motivation amongst members of the workplace and fulfillment of organizational goals.
  3. Need for Affiliation (n-Aff): The need for affiliation is the desire to establish friendly and close relationships with others and to interact socially.

    McClelland observed that people with a high need for affiliation get motivated to express their feelings and emotions to other people as part of their normal behavior and strongly desire to be liked and accepted by others. In this way, they resent and discourage conflicts and confrontations in their day-to-day relationships and, by nature and constant practice, feel motivated to emphasize friendship and cordiality.

The three motives correspond, in consonance, with Maslow’s love, esteem and self-actualization needs:

  • n-Aff = Love Need (Maslow)
  • n-Pow = Esteem Need (Maslow)
  • n-Ach = Self-actualization Need (Maslow)

The relative intensity of affiliation, power and achievement motives varies among individuals. It also tends to vary between different occupations. Managers appear to be higher in achievement motivation than in affiliation motivation.

McClelland saw the achievement need (n-Ach) as the most critical for an organization’s economic growth and success. The need to achieve is linked to entrepreneurial spirit and the development of available resources.

Research studies by McClelland use a series of projective tests. For example, individuals are shown a number of pictures in which some activity is depicted. Respondents are asked to look briefly (10-15 seconds) at the pictures, and then to describe what they think is happening, what the people in the picture are thinking and what events have led to the situation depicted.

The descriptions are used as a basis for analyzing the strength of the individual’s motives. Despite the apparent subjective nature of the judgments, McClelland has, over years of empirical research, identified the following common characteristics of people with a strong achievement need (n-Ach):

  1. A preference for moderate task difficulty

    They prefer setting moderate goals with an intermediate level of difficulty and take calculated risks as an achievement incentive. If the task is too difficult or too risky, it would reduce the chance of success and of gaining need satisfaction. If the task is too easy or too safe, there is hardly any challenge in accomplishing it and deriving satisfaction from its success.

  2. Personal responsibility for performance

    They like situations in which they can assume personal responsibility for solving problems. They like to attain success through their own efforts rather than by teamwork or chance factors outside their control. Personal satisfaction is derived from the accomplishment of the task and are not impressed by recognition from other people.

  3. Desire for concrete feedback

    They have strong desire for clear and unambiguous feedback to ascertain how well they are performing. Knowledge of results within a reasonable time is necessary for self-evaluation. Feedback enables them to determine success or failure in the accomplishment of their goals and to derive satisfaction from their tasks.

  4. They are more innovative

    As they always seek moderately challenging tasks they tend always to be moving on to something a little more challenging. In seeking short cuts they are more likely to cheat. There is a constant search for restless and avoid routine, and also tend to travel more.

The Extent of Achievement Motivation

The extent of achievement motivation varies among individuals. Some people may have very high achievement motivation—who are challenged by opportunities and work hard to achieve a goal. Others may be rated very low in achievement motivation—they do not care much and have little urge to achieve.

For people with very high achievement motivation, money may serve as a means of giving feedback on performance. This caliber of people seems unlikely to remain long with an organization that does not pay them well for good performance. Money may seem to be important to high achievers, but they value it more as symbolizing successful task performance and goal achievement. For people with low achievement motivation money may serve more as a direct incentive for performance.

McClelland’s research has attempted to understand the characteristics of high achievers. He observes that n-Ach is not hereditary but results from environmental influences.

Being concerned with economic growth in under-developed countries, he has designed training programmes to increase the achievement motivation and entrepreneurial activity of managers.

Based on his investigation into the possibility of training people to develop a greater motivation to achieve, McClelland suggests the following four steps in attempting to develop achievement drive:

McClelland has also suggested that the effective manager should possess a high need for power. However, the effective manager also scores high on inhibition. Power is directed more towards the organization and concern for group goals, and is exercised on behalf of other people. This is socialized power. It is distinguished from personalized power, which is characterized by satisfaction from exercising dominance over other people, and personal aggrandizement.