McClelland's Three Needs Theory

an activated state within a person that leads to goal-directed behavior

a construct representing an unobservable force that stimulates and compels a behavioral response and provides specific direction to that response

Needs occur when a perceived discrepancy exists between an actual and a desired state of being

Note that there are many theories of motivation:

  • Don't look at these as "right" or "wrong"; they are just theories.
  • None are validated, but seem intuitively logical.

A model of motivation might look like:

unsatisfied need===>
. . . . . . . . . .tension===>
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . drives===>
. . . . . . . . . . . . search behavior===>
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . satisfied need===>
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . reduction of tension 


This theory is one of several which posit that we are all motivated by a bundle of certain basic needs, and that some of us are motivated more strongly by some of these needs than by others. Are you the sort of person who is happiest when being able to develop lasting relationships within a group, or are you a more independent sort of person who feels happiest when you've been recognized as the best at something? Are you a "mover and a shaker" who enjoys motivating other people to get a job done, or are you the type of person who avoids the aggravation of getting everyone else to pull their own weight?

In early studies that attempted to understand the qualities of leadership, one of the first types of personality traits to be observed was an apparent need by some people to excel without any external rewards. Asked to play a ring toss game without the imposition of any rules, some people will stand so close that they will never miss and some will stand so far away that winning or losing is greatly due to chance. Others, however, will be very calculating in their distance to ensure that winning or losing is due in large part to their own skill. If they miss the toss, they will move a little closer; if they make the toss, they will step back a bit.

The idea of these multiple needs theories is that we all have the above drive to excel or achieve to some degree, but some people have a lesser amount of this drive and others have a greater amount. These theories propose that we each have other needs, to a greater or lesser degree, as well. The needs that are proposed in McClelland's theory are: 

  1. nACH:

  2. need for achievement: drive to excel: drive to achieve in relation to a set of standards; to strive to succeed. 
  3. nPOW:

  4. need for power: the need to make others behave in a way that they would not have behaved otherwise. 
  5. nAFF:

  6. need for affiliation: the desire for friendly and close interpersonal relationships. 

High nACH:
Some people like goals, some do not. These people are high achieves.

  • they are not gamblers
  • they avoid very easy or very difficult tasks
  • low odds of losing present no challenge to their skills
  • high odds of losing offer no rewards from happenstance success
  • get most satisfaction from "50-50 odds
High nPOW:
  • these people like being "in charge"
  • more interested in the prestige of power than in effective performance
High nAFF:
  • these people strive for friendship
  • prefer cooperative rather than competitive situations
  • desire relationships with a high degree of mutual understanding

McClelland's idea suggests why it is that different people behave in different ways. We all have more or less of a need on some of these factors, making each of us motivated toward different personal goals. People who have a higher nACH would probably make better entrepreneurs or salespeople and be lousy team players. People who have a higher nPOW would probably make better leaders but could be obnoxious "arm twisters" in some situations. People who have a higher nAFF would probably make the best team players but might lack the "self drive" to get anything done if left to do a job without supervision.

The point of this is to note that different people have different personalities and are more or less suited to different roles.  People who are good leaders can be terrible team players; they can be inflexible and pushy, and can be unable to actually do their own work without the help of someone else.  People who have a lot of "internal drive" or who are are described by friends as having a high degree of "self motivation" can also make lousy team players; these people can do very well when given a task to do on their own, but they can have the "my way or no way" sort of attitude whenever they have to work with anyone else.  People who work well in close, collaborative relationships can, on the other hand, fail when forced to make decisions as a team leader and become unproductive if asked to do a job without supervision.

Each of us has strengths and weaknesses in different situations.  We tend to guide ourselves toward situations in which we do our best.  Understanding we are personally motivated, however, can help to ensure that we are able to function reasonably well if we are put into positions of leadership, of team relationships, or of independent work.