McClelland earned his BA in 1938 at Wesleyan University, his MA in 1939 at the University of Missouri, and his Ph.D. in experimental psychology at Yale University in 1941. McClelland taught at the Connecticut College and Wesleyan University before accepting, in 1956, a position at Harvard University. After his 30-year tenure at Harvard he moved, in 1987, to Boston University, where he was a Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology until his death at the age of 80.
McClelland proposed a content theory of motivation based on the Murray's (1938) theory of personality. In his book (1961) The achieving society, McClelland asserts that human motivation comprises three dominant needs: the need for achievement (N-Ach), the need for power (N-Pow) and the need for affiliation (N-Affil). The subjective importance of each need varies from individual to individual and depends also on an individual's cultural background. He also claimed that this motivational complex is an important factor in the social change and evolution of societies. His legacy includes the scoring system which he co-developed for the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), used for personality assessment and in achievement motivation research, and described in McClelland, Atkinson, Clark, & Lowell's (1953) book The achievement motive.
McClelland's theory is related to the Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. One of the key studies, confirming the validity of McClelland's theories, is the study of Bradburn and Berlew (1961) who analyzed achievement motives in British school readers and showed a strong correlation of these themes, a generation later, with the Britain's industrial growth.
McClelland's Theory of Needs
In his acquired-needs theory, David McClelland proposed that an individual's specific needs are acquired over time and are shaped by one's life experiences. Most of these needs can be classed as either achievement, affiliation, or power. A person's motivation and effectiveness in certain job functions are influenced by these three needs. McClelland's theory sometimes is referred to as the three need theory or as the learned needs theory.
People with a high need for achievement (nAch) seek to excel and thus tend to avoid both low-risk and high-risk situations. Achievers avoid low-risk situations because the easily attained success is not a genuine achievement. In high-risk projects, achievers see the outcome as one of chance rather than one's own effort. High nAch individuals prefer work that has a moderate probability of success, ideally a 50% chance. Achievers need regular feedback in order to monitor the progress of their acheivements. They prefer either to work alone or with other high achievers. Affiliation
Those with a high need for affiliation (nAff) need harmonious relationships with other people and need to feel accepted by other people. They tend to conform to the norms of their work group. High nAff individuals prefer work that provides significant personal interaction. They perform well in customer service and client interaction situations.
A person's need for power (nPow) can be one of two types - personal and institutional. Those who need personal power want to direct others, and this need often is percieved as undesirable. Persons who need institutional power (also known as social power) want to organize the efforts of others to further the goals of the organization. Managers with a high need for institutional power tend to be more effective than those with a high need for personal power.
Thematic Apperception Test
McClelland used the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) as a tool to measure the individual needs of different people. The TAT is a test of imagination that presents the subject with a series of ambiguous pictures, and the subject is asked to develop a spontaneous story for each picture. The assumption is that the subject will project his or her own needs into the story.
Psychologists have developed fairly reliable scoring techniques for the Thematic Apperception Test. The test determines the individual's score for each of the needs of achievement, affiliation, and power. This score can be used to suggest the types of jobs for which the person might be well suited.
Implications for Management
People with different needs are motivated differently.
- High need for achievement - High achievers should be given challenging projects with reachable goals. They should be provided frequent feedback. While money is not an important motivator, it is an effective form of feedback.
- High need for affiliation - Employees with a high affiliation need perform best in a cooperative environment.
- High need for power - Management should provide power seekers the opportunity to manage others.
Note that McClelland's theory allows for the shaping of a person's needs; training programs can be used to modify one's need profile.
- Atkinson, J.W. (Ed) (1958) Motives in fantasy, action, and society. Princeton: Van Nostrand.
- Bradburn, N.M., & Berlew, D.G. (1961) Need for achievement and English economic growth. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 10, 8-20.
- McClelland, D. C. (1961) The achieving society. Princeton: Van Nostrand.
- McClelland, D. C. (1975) Power: the inner experience. New York: Halstead.
- McClelland, D.C., Atkinson, J.W., Clark, R.A., & Lowell, E.L. (1953) The achievement motive. Princeton: Van Nostrand.
- Murray, H.A. (1938) Explorations in personality. New York: Oxford University Press.