McClelland's Theory of Needs

What is McClelland’s Theory of Needs? Definition, Components, and Pros/Cons

What is McClelland’s Theory of Needs?

McClelland’s theory of needs explains three needs namely – the need for achievement, the need for power, and the need for affiliation influence the motivation of people.

David Clarence McClelland (1917-1998), an American Psychologist proposed a motivation theory called the need theory. This theory is also commonly known as the three needs theory, acquired needs theory, motivational needs theory, learned needs theory, and achievement motivation model.

Maslow explains in his theory that, inherently people have some needs and for survival, they must satisfy those basic needs. McClelland explains people have such needs because of their life experiences.

But, McClelland explains people acquire needs based on their life journey or experiences. He says every one of us has these three needs (affiliation, power, and achievement). And, among these three needs, one is dominant in everyone.

And, the dominant one (need) shapes our behavior. People who have dominance of power need are usually good influencers. Affiliation ones are good at building relationships. And, people with dominant achievement needs are great performers and high achievers.

Components of Three Needs Theory

A short explanation of these three needs is mentioned below:

Also Read: Expectancy Theory of Motivation

Need For Affiliation

McClelland’s need for affiliation is similar to Maslow’s social needs and Alderfer’s relatedness needs. People with the need for affiliation are more concerned with establishing and maintaining friendly relationships with others.

Since we people are social animals. People with these needs love the interaction with people and want to be accepted by others. People who have a high need for affiliation have the following characteristics:

  • They value the feelings of others.
  • They have a strong desire for acceptance and approval from others.
  • They view the organization as a platform to establish relationships.

Employees with a high need for affiliation are urged to create a friendly and more positive work environment. They are good team players. Everyone values each other and everyone wants to be accepted. They fear rejection. As such everyone is concentrated on achieving the team’s goal.

Such employees may increase the productivity of a team. However, a manager or a leader may be hampered if he has more need for affiliation because such leaders always wait for approval from others and this weakens their objectivity.

Need For Power

Power is the ability to influence others’ behaviors and actions. The need for power is the need to dominate, influence, and control people. They like to set goals, make decisions, and direct activities.

People who have a high need for power are characterized by having:

  • The desire to exercise control over others.
  • A concern for establishing leader-follower relations.
  • A desire to direct and influence people.

Individuals who have the need for power seek to lead, they want their ideas to dominate or have an impact on others. They are motivated by the need for reputation and self-esteem.

In their personal life, people who have power need they seek to control and have authority over another person and influence and change their decisions in accordance with their own needs or desires. Whereas, in organizational settings, such people desire to direct and influence the behavior of employees.

Related: Authority Vs. Power

Managers or leaders who have a high need for power are usually more efficient and successful at their work or positions. They tend to set goals and drive the behavior of employees toward achieving such goals and ensuring the achievement of overall organizational goals.

Need For Achievement

The major focus of McClelland’s theory of motivation is this need. According to McClelland, a major factor in willingness to perform is the intensity/degree of an individual’s need for achievement.

The need for achievement is the need for challenge, personal accomplishment, and success in competitive situations. He found that people with a high need for achievement perform better than those with a moderate or low need for achievement.

McClelland identified the following characteristics of people with achievement needs.

  • They like to take personal responsibility for finding solutions to problems.
  • They like to take calculated risks and set moderate goals because with too many ambitious goals the chances for failure will be high and vice versa.
  • They want concrete feedback on their performance.
  • High achievers are not motivated by money, instead, employ money as a method of meeting the score of their achievement.

In short, it should be noted that according to McClelland, everyone has each of these needs to some degree. However, no two people have them in exactly the same proportions. For example, one person may be very high in his need for achievement but low in his need for power or affiliation and vice versa.

Related: Two Factor Theory of Motivation

Studies show that people with a high need to perform better in the workplace and establish their unique identity. Especially, in important entrepreneurial jobs like starting a new business these people are good.

Significance/Contribution of McClelland’s Theory

  • McClelland’s motivation theory is promising for work motivation.
  • It is important to national prosperity and progress. Without high achievers, nations can not be developed.
  • This theory may work as a helping hand for job design in the workplace.
  • Achievement-motivated people can be prepared through training programs and they can be the backbones of organizations.
  • Since this theory is macro level theory it has several implications for entrepreneurship and other economic activities of the country.


  • Achievement motivation can not be taught. It is because the acquisition of motives occurs in childhood and it is very difficult to change them once established.
  • Creating achievement motivation through training does not last long. It is just a temporary induced feeling rather than a permanent change in behavior.
  • Achieving training, though promising, is time-consuming and expensive.

Read Next: Theories of Motivation

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