McClelland’s Motivational Model


image“To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities.” – Bruce Lee

How do you make sense of what’s driving a manager or the people around you that you work with everyday?

If you understand what’s driving people, you can better understand the behaviors, blend your behaviors, and anticipate situations.

Achievement, Power, and Affiliation

David McClelland created a simple model to help explain these drivers.  He explains what drives people’s in terms of three needs:

  1. Need for Achievement (N-Ach)
  2. Need for Power (N-Pow)
  3. Need for Affiliation (N-Affil)

Basically, McClelland explain how the needs for achievement, power, and affiliation affect the actions of people from a managerial context.  It’s a simple lens, but you can use this lens to help you understand what’s going on around you.

Need for Achievement

A person motivated by achievement seeks mastery of tasks or situations.  They are driven by personal achievement over the rewards of success.  The job represents an end in itself, and monetary rewards are simply an indicator of results.

They are driven to perform something better than it’s been done before.  They seek situations where they can put their skills to the test and get rapid feedback on their results.

They seek situations where they work on challenges where the success depends on their results, not on luck or the actions of others.  In other words, they only accept risk when they believe their personal contributions will make a difference in the final outcome

Need for Power

A person motivated by power seeks to have impact, be influential, or control others.  They enjoy having status or being “in charge.”  They care more about gaining influence or prestige over others, than they do about effective performance.  They are willing to take risks for the opportunity to gain power.

Need for Affiliation

A person motivated by affiliation seeks to be liked and accepted by other people.  They prefer spending time creating and maintaining social relationships and being part of groups.  They prefer cooperative situations over competitive ones.  There desire to be liked by everyone gets in the way of taking decisive action.

Stressful situations increase the need for affiliation.   However, there’s a catch.  People only want other people around when they can help deal with the stressor.  They don’t want other people around when it would increase negative aspects, such as embarrassment.

What’s Driving You?

While your motivation varies based on situations, you might find that you have some patterns that show up time and again.  For example, do you feel the need to achieve great things or have a job well done?  … Do you tend to feel the need to have status or be in charge of others?  … Do you find yourself feeling the need to be liked by everybody?

How To Use This

McClelland’s work suggests that those in the top management positions should have a high need for power and a low need for affiliation and that while individuals with a need for achievement can make good managers, they’re not suited to top management positions.

In my experience, it’s less black and white and the most effective approach is to balance connection and conviction and improve your ability to influence without authority as you move up ranks.


  1. If one can see these through a slightly different perspective, it may make a lot of sense for why the “How to Use This” is applicable:

    Need for Achievement – This is the “I’ll do it myself” approach as I see it. This is where there isn’t any delegation which can be a problem in some situations. I can relate to this as I have often had the idea that if I want something done well, I’d do it myself.

    Need for Power – This is where there is a lot of delegation, persuasion and using others in various ways. This could also be seen as gaining political power and knowing how to handle social situations for why this is useful.

    Need for Affiliation – This is the person striving to create harmony. Thus, this isn’t likely to be the decision maker that has to say “Yes” or “No” to something without some discussion as I see it. This isn’t a bad characteristic on its own, but in our current culture this could be hard to have a high need here and still be an effective leader in an organization.

  2. Great distillation.
    It explains perfectly now few things to me – seomthing that intuitive for me and now crystal clear.
    Thank you.

  3. Hi JD – Great explanation. I think I come somewhere in between achievement and power. Achievement is important to me but not necessarily from doing it all myself.

    Power is important because I like to be in control. It was worth thinking about this, as once you can recognise these drivers in yourself, it’s easier to recognise them in other people. A huge mistake I’ve made in the past is assuming that folk working for me are motivated by the same things.

    As you say, it isn’t all black and white and I guess there are overlaps in many of these models.

  4. Hi JD .. I’m sure I’m a mix of the first two – I’ve always preferred to do things myself and get the job done .. often to the detriment of myself .. as I’m stressed! Now I’m not in a work environment .. I realise that I need to include others within any project I need to get done .. and therefore recognise their worth and their skills within the process.

    It’s perseverance to keep going and not stop at one achievement, and then become part of the team .. but one of the leaders, because you’re always there and reliable, and do good work. I’ve always seen myself as a good 2nd in command …

    However we’re all different and each team of workers has different traits and skills .. but it’s always so interesting to know about – thank you – Hilary

  5. Hi, J.D. –

    It was easy for me to see that I’m motivated by the first (achievement) and . . . indeed, I did my best work as a team manager! Thanks for sharing!

    – Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

  6. @ JB — One simple way to think of McClelland’s model is a need for accomplishment, a need to lead, and a need to be liked. It’s a motivation model to explain a manager’s drivers. Now we can contrast with scenarios they won’t like – a lack of tangible outcomes, one-man band, and conflict. We can identify scenarios they will like – results, team, and harmony. The reality is scenarios aren’t simple so an effective manager learns to balance their needs with the needs of the situation, and they can adapt to the situation, adjust the situation, or avoid the situation, while growing their abilities along the way.

    @ Alik — I think it’s a powerful lens, and I think it maps back to useful counter-forces and tension points (task-focused vs. people-focused, for example.)

    @ Cath — You pointed out a really important insight — that folks aren’t always motivated by the same things as you. Just being aware of this can really help you be more effective in any situation.

    @ Hilary — You have really good self-awareness and that’s a key to effectiveness. To scale yourself, there’s two lenses – finding people that share your motivations, and finding people that compliment your abilities. The other key to scaling yourself is spending more time doing what you enjoy — this unleashes your energy to get results.

    @ Marie — Achievement through team is a valuable skill, especially in today’s world.

  7. Definitely achievement for me. Good thing I’m my own manager!

    It is interestesting to see the differences in motivation and how we might understand others better through each person’s strengths.


  8. I would have said achievement was my driver earlier in my life, but I think in the past 3 years affiliation has taken the wheel….

    Now I want to let my light shine brighter….more powerful, so I am working in other directions…

    Interesting ideas Thank you

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