The Theory of Needs and Achievement

By Shawn P. Quigley

Needs According to McClelland

We have discussed several different motivational theories and today we will continue that discussion with McClelland’s Needs theory of motivation. The reason we are discussing McClelland’s theory now is that it provides some insight why an employee may become disenchanted with not improving a process that they perceive as requiring improvement. We discussed this to a small degree in Pavlov’s Employee.

Achievement, Affiliation and Power

There are three sections to McClelland’s theory: Achievement, Affiliation, and Power (McClelland, 1995).  Achievement refers to how people have different levels of achievement they desire and they seek an objective equivalent to their need for achievement. Affiliation refers to the individual’s desire to be associated with and/or accepted by a specific group. Typically a group that has the majority of members with a similar level of desired achievement as they perceive themselves as having. Power has two sub-categories for this theory: Personal and Institutional. Personal power is described as the desire to control others and institutional power is described as having an effect on the organization. For our discussion we will focus mainly on the first two factors; Achievement and Affiliation.

Pavlov’s Employee and Achievement

As we discussed in Pavlov’s employee, there was little chance for achievement as the employee’s suggestions were being dismissed. The dismissal of the suggestions; that the individual thought would improve the process, without some form of positive feedback as to why the recommendation could or should not be used at that time negated any sense of achievement the individual might have garnered. Most individuals that have a high need for achievement are constantly attempting to improve the processes, the organization, and themselves. Ironically it is this very factor that causes a loss of motivation. The individual’s constant suggestions for improvement are commonly seen as disruptive because the organization can seldom respond as fast as desired by that individual and thus the individual is often perceived by the organization’s hierarchy as having a negative attitude. We would be deluding ourselves if we thought that any organization could constantly change its processes without suffering some adverse effects. That is not the point. What is the point is, “how do we not demotivate someone who desires a higher level of achievement from the organization?” The answer to this dilemma is communication.

Can't play ball by myself, but I can jump high to catch it with your help.

Can’t play ball by myself, but I can jump high to catch it with your help.


 Affiliation and Aspirations

In the beginning of our discussion we stated that affiliation is the need to be associated with a group that fosters similar aspirations or feelings as the individual. When the need for achievement is stifled as shown above the individual will may fill their affiliation need with those who are also dissatisfied. The old adage of misery loves company comes to mind. This association of misery further exacerbates the situation and over the course of time is a self-filing prophecy.  Specifically, the individual can become disruptive to the very processes they desired to improve in the beginning. However if positive communication was employed during the onset of this issue the individual might seek affiliation with those who could help achieve the goal at some later time or future project.


This assistance to achieve the desire goal brings us to the power aspect of the Needs Theory. Either aspect; personal or institutional, of the power portion of the needs theory could be used to obtain the desired results of the individual here and would be solely based upon the individual’s personality. However it is not uncommon for individuals who find themselves in this situation to have neither form of power. If they were to have either power this would not be an issue. This is likely the cause of the desire for power, to facilitate the fulfillment of the desire to achieve.

Communication, Affiliation, and Achievement

Here; as with many of the other theories we have discussed previously, the manner that communication occurs between the two parties helps determine the outcome of the encounter. While it is not always immediately prudent to the situation to have a discussion it should occur as close to the situation as possible to avoid the chance of negative affiliation occurring and making the situation worse. When the discussion can occur it should start with why the recommendation could not be pushed forward at that time and who should be involved to evaluate when and/or how further evaluation or employment of the recommendation can occur. This is another example of the open mental model that we have repeatedly shown as key to both motivation and the learning organization.

If you are a supervisor or manager ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I go back to my team members to discuss their suggestions after not using them during a specific situation?
  2. Does the discussion occur with an open mind?
  3. Do I seek others who might help understand the recommendation to join the discussion?
  4. If I do not employ these ideas, why?

If you are an employee ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I make suggestions in an open or confrontational manner?
  2. If my suggestion is not accepted, do I complain to my co-workers?  What do I expect to achieve by complaining to co-workers?
  3. Do I make the suggestion again to management on the process improvement?  When making the suggestion the second time, do I ensure that the time, place and information provided is appropriate and beneficial?


Works Cited

McClelland, S. B. (1995). Organizational Needs Assesments: Design, Facilitation, and Analysis.Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.

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