What is McClelland's theory of needs? (And how to apply it)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 5 September 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Organisations are constantly looking for the best ways to motivate staff and ensure they're as productive as possible to help reach their goals. McClelland's theory of needs assesses motivation in the workplace and outlines three core staff needs, including the need for achievement, power and affiliation. If you lead a team, understanding this theory and applying it in the workplace can be useful, as it can help to keep your team motivated. In this article, we explain what McClelland's theory is, outline how to apply it in the workplace and explain its benefits and disadvantages.

What is McClelland's theory of needs?

McClelland's theory of needs is a type of motivational model that attempts to explain the process of motivation in people. It looks at an individual's three main needs, including the need for achievement, power and affiliation. This theory notes that these needs are inherent to all people, regardless of their age, gender, race or culture. According to this theory, all three needs create an individual's motivation levels. Below, you can find out more about the three distinct types of needs that impact an individual's motivation:

Need for achievement

The need for achievement is a desire to reach a particular goal, milestone or accomplishment. This goal varies from person to person, but the desire to achieve it remains. For example, a doctor might desire to provide a medical treatment that saves a patient's life. Individuals motivated by these needs typically thrive in challenging situations and often seek them out to satisfy their desires. They usually work in roles that focus on results and they tend to take calculated risks to achieve their objectives.

Individuals with a high need for achievement usually avoid low-risk scenarios due to the lack of any meaningful challenge, which they may feel makes any accomplishment less legitimate. They tend to also avoid high-risk situations, as they understand that luck and chance are just as strong a factor as skill in these scenarios. Instead, they opt for situations that offer a chance for accomplishment through hard work, which is a strong motivator for them.

Related: Motivated employees benefits and how to increase motivation

Need for power

The need for power is an individual's desire to hold authority, control and influence over other people. They want to have the power to change people's opinions and actions to suit their own needs, gains or desires. People with a high need for power also want to boost their ego and reputation and want their ideas chosen over others. These individuals tend to be very capable leaders and are often part of a personal or institutional power motivation group. Personal power motivators want to control other people, while institutional power motivators seek to lead teams.

Competition is a strong motivator for individuals with a high need for power and they put a lot of value in winning arguments and debates. Another key area that's vital to them is their own status and recognition for their talents. These individuals also tend to be strong-willed and disciplined. Additionally, they constantly try to improve their personal status and acclaim.

Related: Using motivation in management to help your team succeed

Need for affiliation

The need for affiliation is the desire to have strong social relationships with other people or groups. Individuals with this need actively seek opportunities to work with others and enjoy establishing and maintaining friendships that last a long time. They're usually driven by wanting to feel liked by other people and prefer to collaborate with others rather than work on their own. Although they typically avoid high-risk situations and uncertain scenarios, they tend to enjoy competing with others. They also place a strong emphasis on social interactions because they seek validation and acceptance from others.

Individuals with a high need for affiliation are typically conformists and adhere to various cultural, social and workplace norms due to a fear of rejection. Although they do enjoy friendly competition, this type of individual is most strongly motivated by collaboration. They don't seek out risks and are quite cautious in how they approach their work. These individuals work well in social roles and customer-facing positions, such as customer service.

Related: What is motivation? (And how to apply it to your career)

How to use McClelland's theory in the workplace

To learn how to use McClelland's theory in the workplace, consider these steps:

1. Identify the team's motivations and needs

To use McClelland's theory in the workplace, identify each team member's needs. Understanding their individual characteristics, factoring in past experiences and what they value can help determine which of the three needs align with an individual the most. For instance, if one team member consistently tries to lead the team, or delegates responsibilities during a project, they're most likely driven by the need for power. In contrast, other team members might stay quiet during meetings but thrive in conflicts, so they're probably motivated by the need for affiliation.

Related: 14 examples of motivation in the workplace to consider

2. Set up the team to suit their preferred needs

Using the different needs highlighted in McClelland's theory, you can then set up the team to suit their preferences and motivations. You might also want to adjust how you handle interactions with individuals based on these needs. For example, consider using team members with a high need for power to lead challenging projects, and ask someone with a high need for affiliation to lead less challenging projects.

Understanding each individual team member's needs by using this framework helps improve productivity for each individual and the team as a whole. With this in mind, try to set up tasks and objectives that align with these needs and remember to regularly check team members' progress to make sure your choices were accurate.

Related: A comprehensive guide to managing difficult employees

Benefits of using McClelland's theory

There are several benefits of using McClelland's theory in the workplace, including:

Tailor task delegation

Using the framework provided by this theory allows team leaders to assign team members tasks that suit their characteristics and motivations, which can improve overall work quality. By offering work based on their needs, staff are more motivated to do their work diligently and effectively. Setting up work to suit an individual team member's needs ensures that their strengths and talents are being fully implemented in their work, which can lead to much better results.

Related: What is delegation? (Including types and benefits)

Reduce excuses for poor performance

As the work given to individuals is best suited for them, there's little justification for poor performance or a lack of motivation to complete a task. By implementing this theory, employees can influence team leader's to assign them work that interests them more. This leads to employees taking on more accountability for their work and, due to this, they're less likely to have excuses about producing poor quality work.

This also means that the expectations for producing high-quality work are greater than before. The reason for this is that the extra time spent on delegating tasks accurately means that a higher standard of quality is typically expected.

Boost staff satisfaction

By assigning work that directly addresses an employee's motivation, staff are typically more satisfied with their role in the workplace. This is due to their needs being clearly addressed through the choice of work that team leaders offer to team members. These satisfied employees provide better results, are happier in their roles and are much more likely to be a positive influence and asset to an organisation.

Related: Extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation (and why it's important)

Disadvantages of using McClelland's theory

There are also several disadvantages to consider when using the theory of needs in the workplace, such as:

Fails to consider basic needs

While the theory of needs establishes needs for things like power, affiliation or achievement, it overlooks some of an employee's more basic needs. This includes things like the need for shelter, food or safety. These basic needs are foundational and without satisfying them the higher-level needs, such as power, can be redundant.

Creates stereotyping

People are unique, so it's challenging to categorise them neatly as the theory of needs aims to achieve. For instance, if someone meets the criteria for the need for achievement, a team leader that uses this model may assign work that aligns with these needs. Then, if a new opportunity arises that doesn't align with this category but interests the employee, the employer may not consider them. This is problematic because it doesn't allow for much lateral movement or transitioning between roles and removes a great deal of flexibility in internal job opportunities.


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