Among quite several different motivation theories, David McClelland’s theory of motivation stands out – an American psychologist, professor, and developer of the latest assessment technique for the thematic apperceptive test. Below we will look at McClelland’s Three Needs Theory in detail.

Theory of needs

David McClelland divided all needs into three large groups. These include the need for power, the need for success, and the need for belonging.Motivation Theory

Needs of power

The need for power is the highest priority. They are conditioned by a person’s learning and life experience and consist in the fact that a person gravitates toward controlling the actions of others as a way to exert significant influence on them. People with a predominant need for power, in turn, are divided into two types.

The first type includes people who seek power for the sake of power itself. They are attracted by the opportunity to command and influence other people. The interests of society or the organization are of secondary importance to them.

The second type includes people who seek power for the sake of solving collective or organizational social problems. Once they have attained the corresponding authority, they set certain goals for a group of people and participate in the process of achieving group goals together. At the same time, they are in search of the best way to motivate people to achieve them. Power needs for this category of people do not represent a desire for self-assertion to satisfy vanity, but a desire to do the responsible work of managing other people to solve social or organizational problems.

Needs of success

The need for success is satisfied only when the work started is completed. People who want to successfully set themselves tasks of greater complexity and wish to receive feedback on their work and their activities in general. For example, the desire to achieve success in the head of the organization can be manifested in the initiative and the desire for justifiable risk. In case he is afraid to fail, he will try not to take part in such activities where it is necessary to be proactive and take responsibility. Such a person will strive to minimize the likelihood that his or her image will be damaged.

The need for success as a motivation for achievement is inherent in the vast majority of people. But the level of its development is different for each person. However, it is this level that will determine the effectiveness of a person’s activity and his professional success in any sphere.

It is impossible not to mention the contribution to McClelland’s theory by the American psychologist John Atkinson. According to his ideas, the need for success should be considered in conjunction with the need to avoid failure. Atkinson revealed that people with a predominant achievement motivation tend to strive for success, and people with a low achievement motivation tend to avoid failure.

This addition made by Atkinson later became the basis of the theory of subjectively preferred risk developed by him and McClelland. In this theory, motivation to achieve and motivation to avoid failure are the determining factors in shaping a person’s acceptable risk-taking behavior. Here it is interesting to note that people with high achievement motivation (which, by the way, includes almost all executives) prefer an average level of risk. They try to avoid particularly risky situations containing a high probability of failure, but at the same time avoid situations where the risk is minimal because in this case, the probability of achieving tangible results is practically zero. And in situations with a medium level of risk, success depends on their efforts.

It follows that people with a predominant achievement motivation have a strong tendency to set medium-risk goals and objectives, where their success, although not guaranteed, depends in any case mainly on themselves: on their efforts and abilities.

Those people with a low level of motivation for achievement (they are mostly people who are used to letting things go at their own pace), in most cases, choose situations where risks are minimal. However, it is not uncommon to meet people who, even if they let things “go with the flow”, can choose situations with great risks, reasoning from the position “as it will be, so it will be”.

Need for affiliation

Needs for involvement are also called participatory or participatory needs. They can be expressed in aspirations for cultural, intelligent, and friendly relationships with the people around them. But people with dominant participatory needs often not only want to establish good relationships with other people but also want to find support and approval in the eyes of people who are meaningful and authoritative to them.


McClelland’s theory of needs has caused Western society to pay renewed attention to the entrepreneur and his basic characteristic of initiative and the ability to take risks.

One of the most important conclusions of McClelland’s theory concerns the motivation of the entrepreneur’s abilities in society in general. He thought that a society with a predominant achievement motivation can produce a large number of active, enterprising, and enterprising entrepreneurs, who, in turn, can accelerate the growth of the economic performance of this society. Entrepreneurs must be willing to take risks, and this willingness has a direct impact on achievement needs.

In addition, research in the area of human motivation, by the theory we are considering, clearly demonstrates that people with high achievement needs are themselves convinced that they can achieve success more than those who do not have achievement needs. People in the first category tend to display more energy, ability to work, activity, and creativity. Plus, their satisfaction peaks when they recognize that they are successful, not when they are recognized or praised by others.

Importantly, McClelland also wondered how high achievement motivation develops and can develop at all. In his opinion, the methods of humanistic pedagogy can be used for this purpose, where relations are built not on the principle of “superiors and subordinates”, but on the principle of “teacher and motivated student”. It is very important, first, that parents and managers set the highest standards of behavior, and that their response is immediate and benevolent when children or employees behave according to these high standards. And secondly, the result of the development of people’s need for high achievement should be the formation of an independent and goal-oriented personality, who is ready for entrepreneurial activity in any sphere and is determined to achieve high results.

If we talk about the states that seek to use high standards of behavior to accelerate the rate of economic growth, according to the theory of David McClelland, it is necessary to perform the following actions:

  • We must abandon traditional orientations and create conditions that stimulate the personal growth of our fellow citizens;
  • We must affirm the principles of high efficiency and set standards of maximum productivity, which in itself will serve to reinforce the need for achievement;
  • We must strive for a more intelligent allocation of labor resources by placing the people best suited for a particular occupation in those areas in which they can have the greatest impact on social and organizational productivity, and by recognizing and rewarding people with predominant achievement needs.

These are the main points of McClellanudd’s theory of motivation. If you wish, you can study it in more detail by finding the relevant materials. However, it is possible to draw your conclusions about this theory with the information you have just read.