Acquired needs theory

Goal seeking achievers - key to a change initiative

Find them and work with them


Acquired Needs Theory describes three types of motivational needs: Achievement, Authority and Affiliation.

These were first identified and described and by David McClelland in his book “The Achieving Society” [1961]. David McClelland was a pioneer in the field of workplace motivational thinking, and was a proponent of competency-based assessments in favour of IQ and personality based tests.

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Achievement motivation [n-ach]

The n-ach person is 'achievement motivated' and seeks the achievement and attainment of realistic but challenging goals, and upwards progress in their job. They have strong need for feedback and a feeling of accomplishment.

According to David McClelland, people with strong 'achievement motivation' make very good leaders. There weekness is their tendency to expect too much of their staff believing that their staff have the same achievement-focus - but of course most people aren't like this.

Authority/power motivation [n-pow]

The n-pow person is 'authority motivated'. This motivational driver produces a need to be influential, effective and to make an impact. These people have a powerful need to lead and take charge and are driven towards enhancing their personal status and prestige.

Whilst people with a strong n-pow 'authority-motivation' will work hard work and be commited to the organisation, they may not possess the necessary emotional intelligence and people awareness and thus lack flexibility and the necessary peoplskills.

Affiliation motivation [n-affil]

The n-affil person is 'affiliation motivated' and is a team player motivated by a need to be liked and for friendly relationships and interactions with others.

David Mcclelland suggested that a a manager's objectivity is underminded by a strong n-affil 'affiliation-motivation' because of the desire to be popular affects and interferes with the decision-making capability of a manager.

He suggested that most of us possess and demonstrate a combination of these characteristics, and some some of us show a a strong bias to a particular motivational need that will inevitably influence and affect our working behaviour and management style.




Acquired needs theory focuses on those with an achievement motivation, and David Mclelland stated as a result of his experiments and research that:

(1) Most people do not possess a strong achievement-based motivation

(2) Those people who do, display a consistent behaviour in setting goals.

Acquired needs theory indicates the following characteristics and attitudes of achievement-motivated people:

  • Achievement of objectives matters more than material or financial reward

  • Greater personal satisfaction is felt by achieving the goal than from receiving praise or recognition

  • Money is regarded as a measure of success, but not the end in itself

  • Neither status nor security are prime motivations

  • Accurate quantative feedback is essential, because it enables measurement of success

  • Achievement-motivated people constantly looking for ways of doing things better

  • Achievement-motivated people will gravitate towards jobs and responsibilities that challenge them and satisfy their needs - for example sales and business leadership and management

  • Achievement-motivated people have the capacity to set high personal goals that they believe to be attainable

Acquired needs theory indicates that people with a strong need for achievement , make the best leaders – provided they develop the people skills necessary to get the best results from their people.

This achievement motivation is also related to Herzberg's motivation hygiene theory.




Practical Application of Acquired Needs Theory to change leadership and management


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In my view, there are 2 main applications of acquired needs theory, for those of us involved in leading and managing change:

(1) Most people don't think like us

Seems obvious, yet over the years I have heard so many CEOs and directors complaining that their managers "just dont get it".

But the reality is that people are very different in the ways they process information, interpret life, and in the ways they are motivated. Many (probably most) of them are not able to make the leap from hearing and understanding your vision and strategy to translating that into purposeful productive action.

It is up to you to define and communicate those actionable steps, and to manage your people through the process of implementing and integrating those steps as the new modus operandi.

(2) Identify and work with the achievers in your team

The second application of acquired needs theory is to find the people who are achievement oriented and who have the necessary people skills - they may not always be in the obvious roles - and forge them into a small team to help lead and manage your change initiative.

Use the informal networks as well. To quote Jon Katzenback: "find the master motivators" - the people who are recognised by their peers as being natural leaders.




Putting it all together and managing the whole messy business


To understand acquired needs theory and motivation in the workplace from a change management perspective, we need to be aware of the context in which all this takes place.

acquired needs theory,david mcclelland,motivation theories,theories of motivation,change management,change managers,change management trainingIn the current economic climate, the key drivers for change in corporate life are all to do with increased efficiency, cost reduction and corporate restructuring.

There is a potential fundamental problem here in that these drivers as expressed by directors in terms of organisational performance are not necessarily aligned to the personal needs and drivers of the workforce.

So we can see from the outset that motivating people and successfully managing change in the workplace is the result of a balancing of enterprise performance requirements with individual fulfilment needs.




Further Resources


Motivation Theories - getting people to take action

Motivation in the workplace - People are motivated when they are inspired

Maslow's hierarchy of needs - A paradigm shift

ERG Theory - Practical application to leading change

Herzberg Motivation Theory - Satisfied and motivated

Process theories of motivation - Personal needs drive behaviour

Employee motivation techniques - How to achieve peak performance

Myers Briggs Personality Types - Why so important

Inspirational motivation - How to inspire your people in tough times




Putting all this into practise





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