After reading this article you will learn about the McClelland’s need for achievement theory.

A distinctive theory of work motivation which places a great emphasis on needs and individual differences.

Basic Concepts:

McClelland stated that a country’s economic development largely depends on the extent to which its citizens have a need for achievement.


Studies made by him and others indicate that there is a strong positive correlation between:

(i) The need for achievement and performance and

(ii) Executive success.

This need, McClelland discovered, could be developed in mature people because an individual’s drives or motives are not fixed as a result of childhood experiences.


To measure needs McClelland uses the Thematic Appreciation Test (TAT). It consists of a series of ambiguous pictures. If the individual writes stories that lay stress on doing one’s job more effectively, making progress in one’s career, and/or accomplishing goals, he is expressing a high need for achievement. Individuals who possess a high degree of achievement motivation spend a major portion of time pondering over achieving goals and also developing the means of doing so.

Five conditions are important for an individual possessing a high level of need achievement to manifest it by achieving goals:

1. The goal is presumably responsible for identifying solutions to major problems.

2. The individual enjoys moderate risk taking as a function of skill, not chance; enjoys responsibility for outcomes.


3. The individual is allowed to set moderate achievement goals and take calculated risks. [One proximate reason of why many companies have moved into a management by objectives (MBO) programme is that there is a positive correlation between goal setting and perform­ance levels.]

4. The individual needs rapid feedback on how he is performing.

5. The individual possesses skill in long-range planning as also organisational abilities. Suc­cessful managers are experts at looking at future objectives and considering alternative ways of reaching those objectives.

Three needs:


According to McClelland needs are of three board categories: achievement, power and affiliation. The first one is individualistic in nature, while the other two are interpersonally oriented. Achieve­ment refers to desire to excel or achieve in relation to a set of standards.

People with a high need for achievement are assumed to have:

(1) A desire to assume personal responsibility,

(2) A tendency to set moderately difficult goals, and


(3) A need for specific and immediate feedback, and

(4) A preoccupation with their tasks.

Because such a need is assumed to be important for managerial success, he has designed a training programme for increasing one’s need for achievement. Studies have found that people who complete this achievement training make more money and receive promotions faster than other managers.

Power is defined as the desire to control others or have influence over others. The need for power has recently received considerable attention as an important managerial need. It can be defined as “the desire to be influential in a group and to control one’s environment”. Research has shown that people with a strong need for power are likely to be superior performers, have good attendance records, and occupy supervisory position.


One study found that all managers tend to have a stronger power motive than the general population and that successful managers tend to have stronger power motives than less successful ones.

Affiliation refers to desire for friendship, co-operation and close interpersonal relationships. The need for affiliation is less well understood. Like Maslow’s need for belongingness, the need for affiliation is a desire to have human companionship and acceptance. People with a strong need for affiliation are likely to prefer (and perform better in) a job that entails a lot of social interaction and offers opportunities to make friends.

The high achiever:

A high achiever is the one who has the following characteristics:


1. An achiever is supposed to have a compelling need for personal achievement in doing the job or task, rather than job-related rewards. He is not motivated by monetary reward but by job and goal performance.

The implication is that there is a strong need to excel in performing the task (for the means as well as the end). The achiever is eager to do it more efficiently than it has been done before, i.e., to do it better.

2. An achiever prefers to take personal responsibility for solving others’ problems rather than leaving the outcome to them. Consequently, an achiever can be viewed as a loner, i.e., one who prefers to be alone and at times he seems to have difficulty in delegating authority.

3. An achiever prefers to set moderate goals he thinks he can achieve. His goal setting involves ‘stretching’ to achieve the results because easy goals (high probability of success) would provide no challenge. Difficult goals (low probability of success) implies that the achiever is gambling on success; not only would the achiever lose control of that situation, but also there could be no sense of achievement satisfaction from the event if it fails or is accom­plished by sheer luck or chance.

4. An achiever prefers immediate and concrete feedback on performance. The rapid feedback is to assist achiever in goal measurement. The nature of the feedback has to be in terms of goal performance (rather than personality variables) so that the achiever is enabled to determine exactly what has to be done to improve performance.

The Need for Power:


More recently McClelland focused on the power need. He studied the needs people have for affiliation and power — the need for the power need. Power-oriented individuals spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about the manner in which they influence and control other through such techniques as direct confrontation, argumentation, and giving rewards and punishments. However, a power-oriented manager is successful only if he employs a mature, democratic coaching style.

Most corporate executives, like entrepreneurs, are characterised by a low need for affiliation; that is, they are minimally motivated by social needs. McClelland discovered that male managers with a high need for power had more productive departments than managers with a high need for affiliation.

McClelland’s research has brought into focus an important point — “managers with a high need for power in the majority of instance use it for the benefit of the organisation rather than for self-aggrandizement. They use power to increase the power of others through participation, sup­port, and the positive reinforcement of accomplishments. They view their role as manager as a way to expand power for themselves and for other members of the organisation rather than to hoard power”.

In short, McClelland has proved conclusively that entrepreneurs and corporate executives placed in situations of crisis or turmoil function most effectively if they possess a high need for achievement. True enough, corporate executives function more effectively in non-crisis situations or in traditional organi­sational positions if they posses a high need for power plus a mature coaching style.