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Motivation and Power. 

Motivation and Power.


By: Annie McKee. Leadership.

Three-Needs Theory

David McClelland’s three-needs theory focuses on people’s needs for achievement, affiliation, and power. McClelland’s research on these needs, or motives, is extensive and has been followed up with numerous studies around the world. Several of these studies have involved managers, making the results particularly relevant. Let’s look at each of these needs—achievement, affiliation, and power—individually, and then we’ll consider their relevance in the workplace.

Need for Achievement

The need for achievement (nAch) is the desire to engage in challenging activities, to meet and exceed personal goals, and to succeed. The need for achievement can include a desire to do better than others, but success is most often measured as a personal standard of excellence rather than by external standards. People who are high in nAch like regular feedback for the purpose of improving performance, and they tend to have a relentless desire to succeed in whatever they do.

Although high-nAch people may sound like perfect employees, we shouldn’t make this assumption. Research does indicate that people with high nAch do well early in their careers, when individual contribution is valued. However, the problem is that few of today’s jobs call for individual contribution alone. Even entry-level jobs usually require people to work in teams and manage complex projects with others. Tasks and responsibilities need to be negotiated, and goals and standards have to be agreed on. This can be difficult when one or more people on the team are motivated by a high need for achievement.
As a person gains more responsibility and begins to manage others, the need for achievement can get in the way. How does this happen? When excellence is the goal, and personal standards are the measure of success, managers often have difficulty allowing others to define how they work or accomplish goals. They don’t always have patience with others’ efforts or learning curves. These managers would often prefer getting the job done correctly and as fast as possible, rather than training others. At worst, people who are high in nAch are at risk of becoming micromanagers. Micromanagers try to do everything themselves and criticize everyone else’s efforts. Clearly, this creates a negative environment, and results in people not giving their best effort.

Need for Affiliation

The need for affiliation (nAff) can be described as a desire for warm, fulfilling, and close personal relationships. People who are high in nAff are concerned with others’ feelings, care about people’s desires and needs, and will expend tremendous time and energy building warm, trusting relationships. These individuals value friendship and camaraderie and will often try to create a sense of team spirit. They may avoid conflict and are keen to resolve it in ways that leave relationships intact.

High-nAff people sound like great coworkers—and this is often the case, Individuals who are high in nAff tend to create environments that are marked by care, empathy, and compassion. Many people thrive in this sort of environment. Problems can arise, however, when a strong nAff drives employees or managers to avoid disrupting relationships. This can result in outcomes that are unintended and destructive in the long term. For example, a manager who is high in nAff might avoid giving direct feedback on performance. This can lead to ongoing performance issues. Alternatively, the manager may suppress conflict that is a healthy expression of differing opinions. Another possibility is that a high-nAff manager might build strong friendships with some employees (those with similar needs) and not with others, leading to perceptions of inequity, unhealthy competition, or internal conflict.

Need for Power

The need for power (nPow) is the desire to have influence, responsibility, and authority over others either directly or through social status. Research indicates that the need for power is associated with attaining significant positions of responsibility—such as top management jobs. People who are high in nPow seek control and social status and are gratified by promotions, and increased responsibility. It also seems that people high in nPow are less susceptible to “power stress”—chronic stress associated with the constant pressure, heavy responsibilities, long hours, and hard work that leaders and manminded ambition for the sake of controlling others is destructive. These kinds of man- agers and leaders create dissonance, and they wreak havoc on teams and organizations. However, these people can also be strangely attractive, as they exude confidence and strength. We often find ourselves drawn to these people, and we may even seek to emu- late them. So, it is important to recognize when and how to manage the downside of the need for power both in ourselves and with others.


One way to manage a high need for power is to consciously channel it toward the good of the group, rather than sim- ply toward personal gain. In fact, McClelland and colleagues make a distinction between personalized power and socialized power. Individuals high in personalized power seek to effect change and demonstrate control through assertive or aggressive behavior, often for personal gain. However, individuals high in socialized power seek to change their environments through prosocial behavior.
 Prosocial behavior is any behavior that seeks to protect the welfare of society or the common good. People motivated by socialized power often experience satisfaction from the accomplishments of others and shy away from notoriety themselves. An example would be a supervisor whose joy comes from watching employees succeed on their own, using skills that he or she has taught them.

Socialized power and prosocial behavior are terms that are gaining interest as service and sustainability become more prominent aspects of organizational vision and strategy. Although the terms may be relatively new, the concepts are not. For example, in some cultures like many in sub-Saharan Africa, the good of the group is put ahead of individual needs or desires and is captured in a concept called Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Nguni word, but it can also be found in the Zulu and Xhosa cultures, as well as in many others throughout the southern half of the African the continent. Ubuntu is roughly translated as “I am because you are.” Zulu and Xhosa proverbs sum up this philosophy of life and relationships in the following phrase: “A person is a person through other people; Zulu—“Umuntu (a person) ngumuntu (is a person) ngabantu (through other people)”; and Xhosa—“Umntu (a person) ngumntu (is a person) ngabanye abantu (through other people).”

Ubuntu is a mind-set that motivates people to direct power toward the good of the group. Today, scholars such as Barbara Nussbaum are applying the concept of Ubuntu to business. This is an important contribution to people’s understanding of how to work well together and how to link what “I” need with what “we” need. Consciously attending to this “I/we” dilemma can help engage socialized power—which can and does impact group life positively.

In 2008, Nelson Mandela said:

Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address [take care of] themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve? These are the important things in life. And if one can do agers face today.
 So what is the downside of a high need for power? In today’s organizations, single that, you have done something very important, which will be appreciated.