Understanding the 3 types of needs: Achievement, affiliation, and power

Tom Moriarty says understand people’s needs to assign duties and motivate them.

By Tom Moriarty

Editor's note: Read more on McClelland's Needs Theory and other motivation theories in Tom Moriarty's May 2018 cover story, Motivation starts with you: Do you truly understand your team's needs?

David McClelland and his research team developed a theory to explain how different people were motivated, known as McClelland’s Needs Theory. It states that there are three types of needs that all people have, to varying degrees, and people are not fully defined by being in only one of the categories. The blend of needs each person has is that person’s individual profile, which can be considered, when developing approaches to motivate that person.

The three types of needs are:

  • the need for achievement
  • the need for affiliation
  • the need for power.

People with a need for achievement like to find solutions. They tend to set moderate goals with moderate risks. Low goals and risks don’t provide a sense of achievement, and high goals and risks have too great a chance of failure. This type of person has a strong desire to receive feedback on good performance and often prefers to work alone. These people are concerned with career advancement, and they want to do their job well, while accomplishing significant, but not monumental, things.

People with a need for affiliation want social interaction — to have camaraderie with others. They contemplate personal relationships and are concerned about how others feel about the situation or circumstances. If there is a perceived problem with a relationship, a person with a strong need for affiliation will seek to repair the broken relationship. These people easily conform to workplace norms and are good at customer relationship interactions.

People that have a need for power want to influence and control others. Those with the need for power can have a preference for personal or institutional power. Personal power is the need to direct others for the sake of directing others; this normally turns people off. Personal power expressions are often viewed as outspoken, forceful, and demanding. Institutional power is more about making advancements or improvements to the organization. These folks seek out leadership positions because they want to be part of directing positive change. People that have strong institutional power needs usually make effective managers and supervisors.

Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP, is a former Coast Guardsman having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years, then earning a commission through Officer Candidate School, retired as a Lt. CommanderTom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP is president of Alidade MER. He is a former Coast Guardsman, having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years; earned a commission through Officer Candidate School; and retired as a Lt. Commander. During his final year of service, 2003, Tom was selected as the U.S. Coast Guard’s Federal Engineer of the Year; an award sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). He is a member of the Society of Maintenance and Reliability professionals, the past Chair of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Canaveral Florida Section, and a member of the ASME Plant Engineering and Maintenance (PEM) Division. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Western New England College, and an MBA from Florida Institute of Technology; Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in Florida and Virginia, Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional, various credentials in management and reliability fields. He can be reached at tjmpe@alidade-mer.com.

It is important to keep in mind that needs do not predict that a person will be strong performers in a strong needs area. For instance, someone with a need for achievement may be in the wrong career field and unable to perform to the level worthy of recognition. An example would be a 5-ft-tall basketball player with poor leaping ability, ball handling abilities, and passing skills. He would never accomplish achievement needs if they included a scholarship to a Division I college basketball team.

A person can have strong needs in one particular area, but can be effective in other areas even when needs in that person’s strong area are not sufficiently satisfied. As an example, a person with a strong need for affiliation may not fit well with his or her team, but performs at a high level (achievement), asserting his or her authority (personal power) ensuring his or her team gets things done.

If you are a manager or supervisor, you can use McClelland’s Needs Theory when you are thinking about how to motivate people on your team, or even peers and people who are senior to you.

People are motivated by their needs. Determine if the person you want to influence is mostly motivated by achievement, affiliation, or power. Structure your communication or assignments in a way that the person can clearly see how their needs can be met.

A person who has a need for achievement would be given moderately challenging goals and provided with frequent feedback. Another person who has a strong need for affiliation might be assigned as a shutdown coordinator, or to work with operations persons to update a standard operating procedure. If the person has a strong need for institutional power give assignments that increase that person’s scope of responsibility. But do everyone a favor and resist putting people with personal power needs in charge, unless you keep tight reins on them. Make sure you coach them and help them to develop less abrasive ways.

McClelland’s Needs Theory is presented as one more tool that can help you form a plan to increase motivation. The key takeaway is that everyone has elements of all three needs. Everyone is different. Everyone requires a good leader to understand the needs that motivate people for higher performance.