McClelland Theory of Needs


McClelland’ Theory of Needs is an important management concept that focuses on the motivational aspects of individuals. David McClelland introduced this theory in 1953. The main argument in this theory is that there are three universal needs and those needs motivate people to engage.

McClelland suggests that every individual is different and the needs and desires of such individuals may differ. In his research, McClelland sought to understand the individualistic nature of people and developed tools to measure the way people decide on making choices. In this process, he found three consistent needs/ desires which individuals of all nature could have. The three needs are power, affiliation and achievement. Therefore, it is also known as the “Theory of Three Needs” of “Need theory of Motivation”.

According to this theory, every individual is motivated by need for either power, achievement or affiliation. These traits are present in all the individuals but the time and situation impact the need for these traits. 

For instance, a newly appointed employee in an organization might initially have a need for affiliation. S/he wants to be friends with the colleagues, create a bond so that it is easy to work in the office. When s/he is no longer a stranger, they may feel that s/he needs to perform their best to achieve better pay or promotion. A higher pay or promotion is directly related to the power they have inside the organization. In this way, the newly appointed employee exercises such needs as per the motivation. Thus, McClelland advocates that every individual has need for all three along with other needs; however, the extent or degree to which these needs motivate the people’s behavior will always differ.

McClelland Theory of Needs and other motivation theories

The advocacy by McClelland’s Theory of Needs is similar to other theories of motivation. Motivation is about understanding what makes people do what they do. Different theories of motivation try to understand the direction, intensity and the persistence of human behavior in doing anything, overtime. Therefore, the several motivation theories study the same things but through different perspectives and that’s why there are some similarities between McClelland Needs Theory and other theories. 

McClelland’s need for achievement is similar to Self-actualization level in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory. Both theories try to understand individuals’ needs and the motivation associated with fulfilling that particular need. However, McClelland focuses on these three needs in an organizational context whereas Maslow in a personal context.

Elements of McClelland Theory of Needs

Let’s understand each element of McClelland Theory of needs and the motivation associated in achieving them.

Need for Power

Individuals with a higher need for power are motivated to influence. The motivation to influence others can be a desire to take control over others or take control over the resources. In an organizational context, the need for power is exercised by managers, leaders, coaches and individuals at the top position in the organization. For example, managers designate responsibilities and duties to the lower-level employees and later evaluate their performance. They influence through their power.

McClelland states that people with need for power aspire to be at the top most position such as leaders, managers in the company. An individual can be successful or can fail to achieve a desired result with having power. With power, s/he may or may not be authoritative and influential. Similarly, employees may not cooperate well with the dominant and aggressive behavior of the leader, which can decline their morale to perform well. But, if the employees share similar needs, they can work under pressure and help themselves as well as manager to achieve desired results.

Typical behavior exhibited by individuals:
  • High: Do not want to involve in disagreement or expect disagreement, demands loyalty, expect harmony, exercises dominance.
  • Low: Enjoys alone time, maintains social distance.

Need for Achievement

Individuals with a higher need for achievements are motivated to perform their best. They like to involve themselves in challenging tasks. The successful completion of those challenging tasks is self-rewarding for them. In addition, they are also risk takers. Achievement driven individuals also want to be in charge and take control over the way the things are done so that they achieve success. Therefore, they like to work at such places where they have control or the results are clear and certain.

Entrepreneurs are an example of individuals with a need for achievement. They have a motive to achieve and are dedicated to turn it into a reality. They are limited to working alone and do not prefer to work in a team. Due to this behavior, they may or may not achieve what they desire. 

Typical behavior exhibited by individuals:
  • High: Drive for success, must secure win anyway, desire for credit or benefit.
  • Low: Avoids complex responsibility, fears failure.

Need for Affiliation

People with a higher need for affiliation are motivated to work in teams. They are motivated to create affiliation and association and work with social connections. They are friendly, cooperative and value the importance of relationships in the workplace. Since they are accustomed to work with the same people, they fear change and take risks. Therefore, they are less likely to switch their jobs. In addition, they are also willing to work under managers or other seniors and learn from them.

However, the shortcoming of people with higher need for affiliation includes the inability of the individuals to work alone. In addition, they have no drive to excel or improve their position. They might limit themselves to what they are required to perform. This can make them ineffective employees compared to those with need for power or affiliation.

Typical behavior exhibited by individuals:
  • High: Friendliness, cooperativeness, desires control of resources, exaggerates own position.
  • Low: Minimizes own position at times, dependent on oneself.

Implications for Organization

The organization can coordinate and make adjustments based on the needs of the employees. The adjustments can be made as follows:

  • Employees with high need for achievement: They should be provided with challenging yet attainable goals. Frequent feedback needs to be provided to help them achieve the desired result.
  • Employees with a high need for power: They should be provided autonomy to manage things themselves.
  • Employees with high need for affiliation: They should be involved in a team and cooperative environment where they can perform best.

Limitations of McClelland’s Theory of Needs

Every theory has some shortcomings and limitations. Some of the limitations of McClelland’s Theory of Needs are:

  • There are instances when individuals are not aware of their needs. This is a very common thing. In such unaware conditions, this theory doesn’t work and managers feel difficulty to understand employees’ needs.
  • The same need can cause two different individuals to behave in two different ways. Similarly, the behavior of an individual can be the outcome of various needs acting at the same time. This shows no such strong relationship between need and behavior.
  • There are other needs which are more important than McClelland’s three needs. This theory is not valid in such a situation.


1 thought on “McClelland Theory of Needs”

Leave a Comment