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Understanding Motivation in the Workplace: Exploring the Three Social Motives


Last week, we discussed the contrasting views of Maslow and Murray regarding the number of human needs. However, it's important to explore the relevance of these theories in a business context.


McClelland's Human Motivation Theory

David C. McClelland, a prominent figure from Harvard, played a significant role in the study of motivation within work environments. Alongside his associates, he devoted more than 35 years to developing a comprehensive framework for understanding human motivation. Their collective efforts culminated in the formulation of a three-motive theory of psychological motivation. This theory has since been widely embraced by managers and salespeople as a valuable tool for gaining profound insights into human behavior. At its core, the theory identifies three fundamental social motives:

  1. Need for Achievement (nAch)

  2. Need for Affiliation (nAff)

  3. Need for Power (nPow)

Let's delve into each of these motives to gain a deeper understanding.


Need for Achievement (nAch):

The Need for Achievement represents a strong desire for measurable personal accomplishments. Individuals driven by high achievement motives actively seek out challenging or competitive situations and set realistic and attainable goals. Their main concerns revolve around:

  • Outperforming others: They are motivated to excel and demonstrate their superiority over others, such as winning a race or competition.

  • Meeting self-imposed standards of excellence: These individuals strive for high-quality performance, regardless of competition, and take pride in doing an excellent job or finding better methods.

  • Making unique contributions: They are engaged in tasks that go beyond ordinary expectations and aim to achieve personal success through unique approaches.

  • Setting long-term goals: Their focus extends beyond short-term objectives, as they plan and work towards goals that lie five to ten years into the future.

  • Overcoming personal and environmental obstacles: High achievers carefully plan and anticipate barriers to goal attainment, actively seeking solutions and strategies to overcome challenges.

People with a high need for achievement derive excitement from measurable accomplishments, outperforming others, making unique contributions, and setting records. They attribute their success to hard work, knowledge, and ability rather than luck. They thrive on receiving frequent and specific feedback on their performance and constantly seek to gauge their standing relative to others. They thoroughly enjoy the process, planning, and execution required to reach their goals.


A typical indicator of an achiever's profile can be observed through a simple example: the ring toss. When participating in a ring toss activity with no competitors or rewards, achievers will test their own abilities. They will step back from the ring until they miss, then inch forward until they find a location where their chances of success are 50/50. Achievers tend to prioritize independence and pursue unique individual accomplishments. While they may not always excel in team-oriented environments, they thrive on to-do lists and data analysis. They hold high standards for themselves and expect others to meet those standards. It's worth noting that this profile aligns well with that of a successful salesperson. To motivate high achievers, simply provide them with their quota and encourage them to get busy. A humorous suggestion is to display a bar chart showing their relative standing among peers, as these individuals thrive on competition.


Need for Affiliation (nAff):

To determine if a person is motivated by affiliation, it is important to identify whether they are pursuing an "affiliation goal" – that is, whether their objective involves being with someone else or promoting an alliance. The Need for Affiliation manifests when an individual demonstrates concern for establishing, maintaining, or restoring positive personal relationships. This desire for affiliation is best described by the term "friendship." The chief concerns of individuals with a high need for affiliation are:


  • Being part of a group or team: Individuals with high nAff willingly sacrifice their own needs for the benefit of the team. They find joy in the relationships and camaraderie that group activities foster.

  • Seeking acceptance and likability: Those motivated by nAff express a desire to establish, restore, or maintain close, warm, and friendly relationships with others. They value the emotional connections they form.

  • Maintaining positive interpersonal relationships: Individuals with nAff demonstrate emotional distress at the thought of separation from others, indicating a strong desire to restore previously close relationships. They prioritize working with people as a central focus in their professional lives.

  • Navigating interpersonal conflict: People driven by nAff make concerted efforts to minimize conflicts and quickly seek resolutions to difficult interpersonal situations. They prioritize maintaining harmonious relationships.


Those high in nAff find motivation in shared activities, collaboration with others, and the consensus-building process. They thrive in cooperative environments, remain attuned to others' emotions, and are generally averse to deviating from societal norms. This profile often aligns with that of a typical school teacher, particularly an elementary school teacher.


An effective way to identify individuals motivated by affiliation is to observe their reaction to common office features such as cubicles. During research conducted at Harvard, affiliates were observed rearranging the room to facilitate easier interaction during a task. Affiliates generally exhibit pleasant personalities, are enjoyable to be around, and maintain high productivity. Sensitivity is a hallmark trait, and building relationships is crucial when selling to them. Leaving proposals behind and scheduling subsequent meetings for further discussions proves most effective.


Need for Power (nPow):

On the other hand, the Need for Power (nPow) drives individuals who seek influence and control over others. They are highly disciplined and expect the same level of dedication from those around them. The primary concerns of individuals with nPow include:


  • Influencing through powerful actions: These individuals display their concern for power through forceful actions such as verbal attacks, threats, or reprimands. They may provide unsolicited assistance or advice not primarily aimed at helping others, but to express their own opinion. Attempts to control others' behavior or manipulate their living conditions also reflect the power motive.

  • Eliciting strong emotional responses: People driven by nPow aim to evoke strong positive or negative emotions in others through deliberate words or actions. They derive a sense of power from others' reactions and maintain control over their influence. It is essential that these actions are intentionally provoked, under the individual's control, and elicit strong responses from others.

  • Acquiring reputation and status: Individuals with nPow are concerned about how others perceive their power and seek recognition for their influential positions. They may exhibit an interest in basking in the glory of high status or express dissatisfaction with a lower social standing.

  • Seeking control in situations: Those motivated by nPow strive to exert control over people and circumstances. They actively pursue opportunities that enable them to exercise this control. It is important to note that the use of powerful words or displays of strong emotions does not necessarily indicate power motivation.

Individuals with a strong need for power strive to attain influence and status. Their primary focus is on exerting influence, rather than solely achieving sales targets. They occasionally seek to provoke reactions from others, as it gives them a sense of control. The desire to control information is driven by the need to feel important. The power drive encompasses two aspects: the need for control and the need to influence. Those who use power for the right reasons do so to steer the team towards a common goal. Conversely, individuals who misuse power do it for personal gain and self-importance. They often have clear expectations when dealing with vendors and are impressed by professional attire and captivating presentations.


Key Considerations

Before attempting to assess someone else's motivation, it is important to keep a few key points in mind. Firstly, most individuals possess a blend of all three motives to varying degrees. It is rare to find someone completely dominated by a single motive. The purpose of the three-motive theory is to identify the strongest underlying needs. Clues to an individual's primary motivational needs are often revealed through their actions and words over an extended period.


What motivates you? Comment down below! Afterward, follow us on Linkedin at “Encompass-CX” for more blog updates!

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