How to Use McClelland’s Theory of Needs to Motivate Employees

Knowing how to effectively motivate your employees can make a difference in not just your company culture and morale, but also in employee productivity and performance. You can use a multitude of theories to establish your own personal practices for employee motivation. McClelland’s Theory of Needs is one such approach that can help you understand your employees’ needs and help to meet them. Learn what McClelland’s Theory of Needs is and understand how to use it to motivate your employees. 


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What is McClelland’s Theory of Needs?

American psychologist David McClelland developed his theory of needs, also called Achievement Theory of Motivation, in the 1960s. This theory is still popular in the world of psychology and academia, but it’s also useful for business leaders and managers. The more you know about the psychology of human motivation, the better prepared you are to effectively motivate your employees. 

McClelland’s theory says that everyone is driven by one of three needs — achievement, affiliation or power. Different people are motivated by different drivers, so understanding what specifically motivates a person to complete a task can vastly improve the likelihood that they’ll complete the assignment, and do it well. 

His theory of needs is based on Abraham Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation and his accompanying Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s hierarchy is most commonly depicted as a pyramid. To reach the top of the pyramid, or self-actualization, people must have their basic needs met first. 

The base of the pyramid refers to physiological needs like food, water and shelter. Above that is safety needs like health and employment. On top of that is love and belonging needs like family and friendship. Next comes esteem needs like respect, status and freedom. The top of the pyramid is self-actualization, in which the individual has the ability to reach their highest potential since they’ve already had all their other, baser, needs met.

McClelland’s theory takes Maslow’s theory and delves deeper into the specific motivations that help us reach self-actualization. According to the theory, everyone has a primary need that drives their motivation for self-actualization: 



The need for achievement means you’re motivated by completing tasks you set out for yourself or that someone else sets out for you. Achievement motivated people often seek out situations and projects that highlight their skills and are neither too simple nor too complex. Tasks that don’t present any challenge at all won’t garner the recognition they desire while tasks that are outside of their comfort zone pose too much of a risk. 



The need for affiliation means you’re motivated by your connections with others. Affiliation motivates interpersonal relationships and emotional connections. Often, they prefer working in groups rather than working independently in order to build those relationships. Affiliation driven individuals tend to avoid situations in which they may face rejection or uncomfortable boundaries within their relationships. 



The need for power means you’re motivated by authority and control. People motivated by power seek positions and relationships in which they can demonstrate their leadership and be the primary decision-maker. Many people who are power-motivated enjoy competition and debate. Unlike those motivated by achievement and affiliation, those motivated by power do not avoid high-risk situations. Instead, they seek them out to show their superiority. 

Related: What Motivates People at Work: Methods for Motivating Teams


How to use McClelland’s Theory of Needs to motivate employees

Use McClelland’s Theory of Needs to motivate your employees. Follow these steps to use the theory to identify your employees’ primary drivers and increase your employees’ motivation: 


1. Determine the driver

First, establish what drives each of your employees. You can do this in three ways:

  • Observe your employees
  • Provide a questionnaire
  • Have a conversation 

If you decide to have a conversation with your employees or offer them a questionnaire, consider asking them questions like these to help you determine their primary driver: 

  • “When you disagree with a coworker, do you seek a compromise to maintain the relationship or do you fight for what you want?”
  • “Would you rather receive directions or give directions?”
  • “Do you enjoy challenges or do you prefer to perform tasks you’ve already mastered?”

The answers you receive will help you determine which driver motivates your employees. 


2. Establish motivators

After learning your employee’s primary driver, you can come up with effective ways to motivate them:

  • Achievement: Ensure you regularly give achievement-motivated individuals new, challenging assignments to keep them happy.
  • Affiliation: For affiliation motivated employees, ensure they have plenty of opportunities to work with other people and build meaningful relationships at work. 
  • Power: Give power-motivated employees opportunities to lead others and delegate to team members. 


3. Implement the process

Take what you’ve learned about your employees and implement new practices that directly support their motivational driver. For example, try giving an achievement-motivated person a new research project or presentation to prepare. For an affiliation-motivated employee, make sure they have plenty of opportunities to work with others. Even if their job responsibilities are primarily independent, place them in an area of the office where they can interact with others. Finally, for power-motivated employees, put them in leadership or spokesperson positions.

Related: 5 Qualities of a Truly Motivated Leader


4. Refine as needed

You may need to refine your individual strategy for each employee over time. See if your initial approach works to motivate your employee. If you see an uptick in productivity and engagement, your strategy is likely working. If your employee lacks motivation or seems unhappy at work, consider trying a different tactic.

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