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McClelland’s Theory Of Needs And Motivation – Applications

David McClelland, an American psychologist developed the theory of needs in the 1960s. It is also called the Three Needs Theory, acquired needs theory, or Learned needs theory. It is a theory to explain motivation and focuses on 3 specific aspects, namely, achievement, power and affiliation. This theory explains what these needs are and how they can impact our behavior, especially in an industrial setting.

According to McClelland, these needs are shaped by an individual’s life experiences and are developed over time. Everyone possesses these 3 needs, irrespective of age, gender, culture or wealth. An individual’s job performance and motivation are affected by these needs.


Abraham Maslow developed his theory of needs in the 1940s. He created a hierarchy of needs, based on their importance. David McClelland took inspiration from this and worked further on this, and published his work as the book, ‘The Achieving Society’ in 1961.

His theory is known as an extension of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s theory of needs states that the basic needs (physiology and safety) must be satisfied before proceeding to the higher levels of needs. McClelland’s theory is based on the idea that needs can be fulfilled collectively. One needs satisfaction is not based on any previous need. There is no hierarchy here.

He mentioned 3 needs and stated that these needs are learned from the experiences we have. These needs lead to different characteristics in different people. One of these needs will be dominant in each person and will further motivate and guide their behavior.

What Are The Three Needs?

1. Need For Achievement:

This refers to a need to achieve something in your career field or interest area. This need motivates and drives people to work, and even helps them in enduring struggles.

For instance, a doctor would want to treat a lot of patients, a singer would want to sing popular songs, etc. People with this need tend to find new ways to solve problems and accomplish goals and value their achievements more than financial rewards. They are rational decision-makers, prefer working alone and value constructive feedback.

They believe in setting difficult standards of work and meeting them. They do not enjoy working in low-risk conditions or challenges, as they would not find the achievement genuine. They also do not prefer low-reward challenges.

High-risk conditions are not preferred as they believe a chance or luck factor could be involved here, causing the achievement to be less genuine. They are most comfortable working under a hierarchical structure based on work-related achievements.

2. Need For Power:

This refers to a need to control another person, influence their decisions and lead them. People with this need have the desire to maintain their esteem and regard high and they expect others to agree with their ideas and opinions. They want to hold authority over others.

People with this need are suited for leadership roles as they can be strong leaders. They enjoy competition and do not prefer losing. They value status and being popular, and love winning. They are likely to be disciplined individuals and expect their counterparts to be the same.

They are willing to take risks to gain more power or fame. There are two types of people in this category. They can be from either personal or institutional power motivator groups. A personal motivator would expect to control others and would want to desperately win at any cost whereas an institutional power motivator would want to lead a team and coordinate them into working together.

3. Need For Affiliation:

This refers to a need to form relationships with others, on a social or interpersonal level. They prefer working in groups, want to please others and form alliances. They tend to avoid uncertain, high-risk situations and prefer collaborating instead of competing.

They are rule-followers and tend to follow the norms of the office setting, as they do not prefer getting rejected. Due to their fear of rejection, they are not risk takers and are mostly cautious.

They enjoy working in a group and are likely to spend time interacting with others. They are fit for client service or customer service jobs, which require politeness in interacting with others.

What Role Is Suitable For Each Need?

  1. People with a high need for achievement can be given challenging roles or tasks that are achievable. Feedback should be provided promptly, and monetary rewards are secondary but could work to motivate them along with appropriate feedback. Entrepreneurial jobs would be a good fit for them.
  2. People with a high need for power can be given leadership or management roles. They can be asked to lead a team or work as a manager in a company. A coach or mentor could also be a good fit. This opportunity to lead others and make decisions for others would work for the people under this category.
  3. People with a high need for affiliation prefer working in a collaborative environment. They should be given teamwork-related tasks or customer service jobs, to make use of their needs.

How To Use Or Apply This Theory In An Organization?

McClelland’s theory can be applied in an organization or workplace setup as well. All employees have different needs. Some employees have a higher need for affiliation, some have a higher need for power, and some have a higher need for achievement.

It can help set goals, give instructions or directions, and give feedback and rewards to the employees according to their needs. Work can also be delegated according to their different needs.

For example, an employee with a high need for power would love encouraging, leading, and guiding others. He / She would also prefer winning over losing. So, this employee could be given leadership or mentorship roles or put in charge of leading a team or managing a few interns. They could also be put in situations where winning a negotiation is more important than the relationship with the opposing team.

Another example would be an employee with a high need for affiliation. This employee would thrive on creating and maintaining amicable relationships. They would probably not be very efficient leaders or managers, as pleasing and meeting everyone’s desires is more important to them. They can be good rule followers and are a good part of team activities or goals as they tend to be cooperative.

Lastly, employees with higher needs for achievement are more inclined towards mastery and competence. They are hard workers and prefer challenging work that requires effort. They are also more open to feedback as they want to continually grow and learn. These employees would be good at effortful work and would also meet challenging goals and demands at work efficiently.

By understanding the needs of different employees, an organization or workplace can recruit, promote or delegate work effectively.

Applications Of McClelland’s Theory Of Needs

  • McClelland’s theory of needs is mostly used within organizational or industrial contexts. It is used to recruit employees based on their needs and motivations.
  • Personality tests can be administered based on this theory, leading to an appropriate delegation of roles. It also helps in gaining more information about the individual.
  • A manager can use this theory to understand the different needs of his employees and provide feedback, motivation and rewards, accordingly.
  • Team members can be assigned various roles according to their needs. For example, a member who displays a high need for achievement can be given a challenging responsibility.


  • The theory fails to explain how individuals get motivated. The process of motivation is not described adequately.
  • People with a high need for achievement seem to expect others to be on the same level as them, in terms of need and that can make them impatient managers or entrepreneurs.


McClelland’s theory is effective to understand people’s needs and how they lead to motivation for different activities. It is especially more used and effective in the workplace and organization. There have been other theories on motivation as well.

For example, another famous theory of motivation, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is more suited for general use than a particular area such as a workplace. Herzberg’s theory is another famous theory which focuses on specific motivating and hygiene factors, such as achievement, recognition and growth. It also focused more on workplace contexts but includes the wellness of employees and increased productivity.

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