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By Denis G.

6 minutes

Need Theory of Motivation (McClelland)

McClelland’s Need Theory of Motivation (Three Needs Theory) provides a way for managers to determine the factors motivating each of their team members. Managers and team leaders can use this information to interact with each team member in ways most likely to motivate them.

Why Is It Useful?

Let’s imagine that you are a manager giving a team member their annual performance appraisal.

This team member has performed exceptionally well this year, so you’d like to reward them by allowing them to take the lead on a high-risk project with potentially great upside for the organization, and also for them. This new project will be their reward for performing so well the previous year.

However, upon hearing they’ve been given the project they don’t seem at all positive. Why? Well, one reason is that you may have misread their motives.

While they might want to achieve great things in their career, perhaps they don’t want to take on a high-risk project for fear it could damage their career prospects should they fail.

Another reason might be that they prefer being part of a great team and don’t like taking center stage.

In this example, using Three Needs Theory would have been useful. With it you could have understood the motivations of your team member in advance of the appraisal, so you could have rewarded them in a way that would motivate them.


The Need Theory of Motivation also goes by a number of other names including:

  • Three Needs Theory.
  • Need Theory.
  • Learned Needs Theory.
  • McClelland’s Theory of Needs.
  • Motivational Needs Theory.

Need Theory of Motivation

Three Needs Theory was developed by David McClelland in his 1961 book, The Achieving Society. The three needs that he identified were a need for achievement, a need for affiliation, and a need for power.

McClelland states that we all have these three needs in some form or another regardless of age, gender, race, or cultural origin. Each individual’s needs are learned through their life experiences and are not innate at birth. This is why the theory is also sometimes called Learned Needs Theory.

Need Theory of Motivation built on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, developed some twenty years earlier in the 1940s.

The Three Needs

Let’s examine each of the three needs in turn. Before we do, it is worth noting that each of these needs exists on a sliding scale.

Three Needs Theory

For example, while some people may desire power, not everyone wants to be powerful at all costs. Similarly, while some people avoid the spotlight at all costs, most people enjoy a little praise. Most people don’t exist at the extremes of each need. This is represented by the bell curve shape in the above diagram.

In a nutshell, each individual will be motivated to a greater or lesser extent by each of the motivating factors.

1. Need for Achievement

Someone with a need for achievement would:

  • Be motivated by achievement and the opportunity for promotion.
  • Have a strong desire to complete complex tasks, set records, or do something not done before.
  • Prefer it when results are under their control and based on their effort rather than external factors.
  • Like to receive regular feedback.
  • Avoid high-risk and low-risk situations. Low-risk situations offer no sense of achievement, and high-risk situations are too much outside of their control.

Team members with very low achievement needs tend to avoid situations where they can fail. Conversely, people with too high an achievement need will want to win at any cost and will want to receive all of the praise.

2. Need for Affiliation

Someone with a need for affiliation would:

  • Be motivated by achieving and retaining acceptance as part of a group. They like to be liked.
  • Follow the social norms of an organization for fear of rejection.
  • Enjoy collaboration but dislike competitive situations.
  • Avoid high-risk and low-risk situations.

Team members with very low affiliation needs tend to be loners, often introverts, with little desire to socialize at work. Conversely, people with too high an affiliation need will demand blind loyalty, and be intolerant of any disagreement.

3. Need for Power

Someone with a need for power would:

  • Want to be in charge of others.
  • Enjoy winning and competition.
  • Place a high-value on discipline.
  • Enjoy having status and motivating others.

Team members with very low power needs tend to be subordinate and dependent. Conversely, people with very high power needs can be rude, exaggerate their own abilities, and want to control everything.

Using the Three Needs Theory

Three Needs Theory can help you identify the key motivators driving each member of your team.

You can then use this information to help you get the most out of each team member. You can do this by changing the way you give feedback, set goals, adjust your leadership style, and the approach by which you try and motivate them.

It’s important to realize that when we change our approaches to best suit each team member, we are not trying to coerce them in any way. Rather, we are trying to create win-win situations. This means that your team member’s needs are being fulfilled (they win), and as a result, they are motivated to do their best to deliver (you win).

There are just two steps to perform to use Needs Theory:

1. Determine Needs

You can use a table similar to the following one to understand the needs of each team member. For each entry in the table, score each team member from -5 to +5. Were +5 indicates a very strong need and -5 a very strong aversion.

Need Theory Analysis

To complete this table you can think about the actions and behavior of your team members in the past. Do this by asking yourself some questions. For example:

  • Do they seek praise?
  • Do they push to achieve deadlines?
  • Do they like to be in charge?
  • Are they introverted or extroverted?
  • Do they enjoy being part of a team?

If you’re new to your job or just simply don’t know your team that well you could get them to score themselves for each of the three needs.

2. Determine How You Will Adjust your Style

All that now remains to be done is to determine how you will adjust your style and approach with each team member. The Three Needs Theory diagram below has been updated to reflect this change.

Using Three Needs Theory

You can then use this table as a reminder as to how to approach each member of your team. Remember to update the table from time to time as new insights about your team members come to light.


Need Theory of Motivation provides a mechanism for team leaders and managers to understand what motivates each of their team members.

Once armed with this information, managers can adjust how they interact with each team member to ensure they are getting the most out of them. Using Three Needs Theory to create motivated team members creates a win-win for both the team member and the manager.

Need Theory of Motivation isn’t the only theory out there we can use to try and motivate our team. There are many others in existence. You can learn about these in our Team Management section.

Cite this article

Minute Tools Content Team, Need Theory of Motivation (McClelland), Minute Tools, Oct, 2018,
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Denis G.

Originally hailing from Dublin, Denis has always been interested in all things business and started EPM in 2009. Before EPM, Denis held a leadership position at Nokia, owned a sports statistics business, and was a member of the PMI's (Project Management Institute’s) Global Executive Council for two years. Denis now spends his days helping others understand complex business topics.

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