McClelland’s Achievement Motivation Theory

PSYCH-105 Industrial Psychology

Chapter 5: Motivation

Unit 1

Unit 2

Unit 3

Unit 4


McClelland’s Achievement Motivation Theory

David C. McClelland

McClelland’s unique contribution lies in the fact that he extended the relevance of motivation from the theoretical understanding and limited application in animal laboratories or context dependent studies, to a general applicability in ‘industry, education and a wide range of areas and contexts. David McClelland’s research indicates that individuals are motivated based on three needs:

  1. Need for achievement (nAch): The achievement need is described as a desire for achievement, combined with other influences such as social approval, and ability. It is the drive to excel, and achieve with respect to a predefined set of standards, to strive to succeed, seek high personal accomplishment, enjoy taking risks, research the environment, and desire feedback. High need for achievement encourages an individual to work hard, to use skills and abilities to the fullest. These people want to accomplish reasonably challenging goal through their own efforts. Individuals with high need for achievements will generally take moderate risks like situations in which they can take personal responsibility for finding solutions to problems and want concrete feedback on their performance.
  2. Need for affiliation (nAff): The desire for friendly and close interpersonal relationships, caused by a need for social acceptance, friendship or belonging. The affiliation need is described as a concern for establishing, maintaining, or restoring positive relationships and a high degree of mutual understanding. High need for affiliation encourages an individual to interact socially with people. These people seek for approval from others, conform to their wishes and expectations and avoid conflict and confrontation.
  3. Need for power (nPow): The desire or drive to influence or have impact on others, it urges one to acquire prestige and control over others. The need to make others behave in a way that they would not have behaved otherwise. The need for power is described as a superior person that can control or influence a subordinate. People with a need for power tend to exhibit behaviour such as outspoken, forcefulness, willing to engage in confrontation and a tendency to stand by their original position. High need for power concentrates on obtaining or exercising power and authority, get satisfaction from the ability to control others. These people want to control their environment including people and material resources, to benefit either themselves or others. They often are persuasive speakers and demand a great deal for others.

The theory states that each person has a need of all three but the magnitude of intensity of a particular need varies from person to person. This theory is also known as Three Needs Theory.

Need for extension was added by Udai Paree an Indian Psychologist, who worked with McClelland.

  1. Need for extension: The drive to help others in need. It does not refer to one’s helping others as a means of satisfying one’s own needs. This motive is an urge to help others purely as a function of one’s realization that other person needs help and that he is capable of providing the help.

Implications of the Achievement Motivation Theory

By understanding and being able to effectively measure nAFF, nPOW, and nACH characteristics in employees, employers have the opportunity to make better decisions of which type of employees to put in various positions.  

The theory emphasizes that the intensity of the individual’s need for achievement is the major factor for willingness to perform. Such individuals ask for a challenging job, requiring creativity and hard work. They look for situations of success and want credit for success. A manager can raise achievement need level of his subordinates by creating a healthy work atmosphere, provision of reasonable freedom to subordinates, provision of more responsibilities and by making tasks more interesting and challenging. Even reward and appreciation of high performance of subordinates is useful for raising their achievement need level.

The essence of the theory is that:

Individual needs


responsive work environment or proper work environment

can create         

job satisfaction

Advantages / Merits / Pro’s

  1. Highlights the importance of matching the individual and the job.
  2. It can be used as motivating factor for economic progress of a nation and even for the success of an enterprise or entrepreneur. 
  3. When it comes to management, McClelland’s theory can prove to be very beneficial. It is important to realize that people are motivated differently.

Disadvantages / Limitations / Demerits / Con’s

  1. McClelland is the only theorist who argued that the needs can be changed socially through education or training. Opponents contend that the change may be only temporary.
  2. McClelland argued that the three needs are subconscious meaning that we may be high on these needs but may not know it – and measuring them is not easy.
  3. Achievement motivation training, though promising is time consuming and expensive. 
  4. The research evidence in support of the achievement motivation theory is fragmentary and doubtful.

McClelland theory of Motivation


Dominant motivator

Characteristics of this person


  • Has a strong need to set and accomplish challenging goals.
  • Takes calculated risk to accomplish their goals.
  • Likes to receive regular feedback on their progress and achievement.
  • Often likes to work alone.


  • Want to belong to the group.
  • Wants to be liked and will often go along with whatever the rest of the group wants to do.
  • Favours collaboration over competition.
  • Doesn’t like high risk or uncertainty.


  • Want to control and influence others.
  • Likes to win argument.
  • Enjoys competition and winning.
  • Enjoys status and recognition.


Graphical comparison of Four Content Approaches to Motivation

Author – Dr. Niyati Garg

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