Nowadays, people are the company’s greatest asset. No wonder employers put more emphasis on retaining and motivating employees. They give the company an invaluable competitive edge and greatly contribute to its success.

In a competitive world, where it is possible to work remotely from every corner of the world and change employers easily, motivating and retaining employees have become one of the most important tasks. What is McLelland’s theory, and do its assumptions work in today’s reality? Read on to find out more.

What is McClelland’s theory of needs?

In 1960, David McClelland developed a theory by which every person has the same set of needs that motivate them. Depending on previous achievements and aspirations, the level of these needs may vary for each employee, but usually one of them predominates. These needs are as follows:

  • need for achievement
  • need for affiliation
  • need for power
Need for achievement

Achievement-driven employees want to grow and learn. They are ready for challenges and complex tasks that require them to work harder. They are highly determined and task-oriented, and completing a task motivates them the most. They crave recognition and praise for their accomplishments. Such employees should be getting ambitious but realistic tasks. Otherwise, we can achieve the opposite effect.

The biggest problem, then, is selecting the right project so that it’s neither too easy nor too challenging for them. Managers should also monitor the development of these employees, as they are constantly growing and acquiring new skills, and tasks that were challenging for them a short time ago may become too easy after a while.

Achievement-driven employees eagerly listen to valuable feedback and are open to constructive criticism, thanks to which they can spot their weaknesses and improve their performance. However, they prefer to rely on themselves and usually want to work independently rather than in a group.

Making rational decisions and never biting more than they can chew may be both their advantage and disadvantage. The most important task of a manager, then, is recognizing their abilities and offering them the right positions. They are ambitious and achieve the set goals, but they don’t like taking risks. Therefore, they make great lower-level managers, where the most important thing is to pursue entrusted tasks professionally and work efficiently.

Need for affiliation

Affiliation-driven employees want to feel that they are part of a team. They want to be included in the community at all costs and often go with the general opinion, even if they don’t fully agree with it. Interpersonal relationships are vital to them, and they consistently seek to nurture their connections with others. They prefer cooperation to competition, and they put the good of the team over their own.

They are employees who enjoy the company’s accomplishments and care about a good atmosphere. From this perspective, they may seem like ideal managers or leaders who pay attention to the individuals within the team and excel at uniting a group of people. In this respect, they are indeed empathetic and supportive. However, people with a strong need for affiliation may struggle with conducting disciplinary conversations or addressing errors when they arise.

Need for power

These employees have a strong desire for control and like to influence their environment. They have no problem taking responsibility for tasks assigned to them or giving orders to people, even if the situation requires them to take some risks. They thrive in such an environment, as it drives them to keep going. They enjoy competition, attaining the set goals is important to them, and they are constantly climbing the career ladder.

Although this combination of traits is often seen as negative, it can actually benefit the whole organization in some situations. With this leadership style, the company grows and reaches its goals, while managers aren’t afraid to take the necessary risks.

What motivates employees in McCLelland’s theory?

McCLelland’s theory suggests that each of us, regardless of gender, upbringing, or culture, has three motivating factors, with one being dominant. Depending on which one prevails, employers adapt their motivation techniques. Such a personalized approach is crucial, as every team is different and consists of people with various personalities.

As a manager in McCLelland’s theory, you need to know what motivates a particular employee, what praise will encourage them to be more productive, and what to avoid not to get the opposite effect. How to determine, then, which of these factors prevails and choose the right motivational system? Perhaps the following overview will be helpful to you.

Achievement-driven employees:
  • set out ambitious, but realistic goals,
  • are not risk-takers, and they look before they leap,
  • prefer working individually to working in a team,
  • value feedback, even if it’s negative.
Affiliation-driven employees:
  • want to belong to a group and this is what motivates them,
  • prefer collaboration to competition,
  • often go with the general opinion, even though they sometimes disagree with it,
  • like a stable and friendly environment.
Power-driven employees:
  • want to control and influence other people,
  • aren’t afraid of conflict and like to win arguments,
  • like to work autonomously and often aspire to leadership roles.

As you can see, this set of qualities can be both an opportunity and a threat. It all depends on how the employee is managed, and whether the manager uses the right motivational techniques and provides a suitable work environment.

What truly motivates people?

McCLelland’s theory suggests that to assign an employee to a particular group, you need to get to know them and listen to what they have to say. In this way, you will get a lot of valuable information that will help you motivate them properly. Employees aren’t always eager to talk directly about what they don’t like, but by analyzing their behavior, or reaction to change, you can get all the information you need.

Identifying the factors that motivate a particular employee will help you set the right goals for them, give you an idea of how to give them feedback, and show you what truly drives them. Ultimately, however, the greatest benefit will be increasing their productivity, which will contribute to the overall success of the company.

Deciphering what employees want and identifying their dominant needs is just the beginning. It is also important to implement a tailored communication plan and change the work environment or the way tasks are assigned. Let’s take a look at some motivational tools that work well with employees driven by different needs.

Motivating your team based on their needs

Motivational tools for achievement-driven employees
  • demanding tasks and training,
  • greater responsibility and autonomy,
  • flexible working hours,
  • rewards and recognition.
Motivational tools for affiliation-driven employees
  • stable and positive work environment,
  • team-building meetings,
  • teamwork,
  • rewards.
Motivational tools for power-driven employees
  • a clear career path with well-defined goals,
  • financial rewards, commissions,
  • greater autonomy with each new success,
  • competition in a team.

How to use McClelland’s theory?

McClelland’s theory can be applied in several ways. For example, HR professionals can use it in their recruitment processes. It can be also helpful when communicating with a given employee, setting out career paths, and mixing groups of employees to create diverse teams. McClelland’s theory shows that every employee can have various desires, and discovering them is the key to increasing their productivity and the company’s overall success.

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Author: Andy Nichols

A problem solver with 5 different degrees and endless reserves of motivation. This makes him a perfect Business Owner & Manager. When searching for employees and partners, openness and curiosity of the world are qualities he values the most.