The Three Needs Theory was developed by psychologist David McClelland in the 1960s. The theory identifies three main needs in the professional setting, which form the drivers of motivation. These needs are
- The need for power (n-Pow)
- The need for achievement (n-Ach)
- The need for affiliation (n-Aff)
I first encountered this idea in the book Managing Scientists: Leadership Strategies in Scientific Research by Alice Sapienza, which I have yet to finish reading. Simply put, every individual identifies with one, two (usually one major, one minor), or even three (rare) of these needs. Fulfilling these needs act as motivators, which in turn determine one’s course of action in a given set of circumstances and options.
In general, individuals who identify significantly with a particular need tend towards certain types of behaviour, which may serve as tell-tale signs from the perspective of others. However, this doesn’t mean these behaviours are indeed exhibited in reality, due to constraints such as rank or resources.
Folks with high n-Pow tend to:
- Control other people for personal or greater good (need for personal power or need for institutional power; personal power or socialised power)
- Seek neither recognition nor approval, only agreement and compliance
- Be argumentative
- Be assertive
- Practise discipline
- Be concerned about reputation
- Arouse emotions in others to push towards a cause
- There is also a distinction between the need for personal power versus institutional power.
Needless to say, the need for personal power is not exactly the healthiest need in a professional setting.
On the other hand, folks with high n-Ach tend to:
- Enjoy practising and honing their skillsets
- Enjoy winning
- Seek improvements
- Seek to do things more efficiently
- Appeal more to the intrinsic value of a task (technical difficulties or complexities) than the “extrinsic value” of the task towards a greater goal (company P&L, personal or company reputation etc.)
- Enjoy tasks where effort is approximately proportionate to results
- Prefer tasks that are neither low risk (not challenging) nor high risk (too much left to chance but not effort)
- Enjoy constructive feedback, both positive and negative
- Set self-imposed goals
- Be inventive or creative
- Enjoy working alone
Lastly, folks with high n-Aff tend to:
- Value interpersonal relationships
- Conform to norms in the workplace
- Prefer collaboration over competition
Naturally, an individual’s dominant need(s) will determine the type of role in which he/she will excel in. For example, entrepreneurs tend to be of high n-Ach. The best senior management leaders tend to be of high n-Pow (institutional power) and high n-Aff. The best middle management leaders, on the other hand, tend to be high n-Ach and a bit less of n-Aff. (Can you figure out why? This is because in a typical corporate setting, middle managers are promoted into their positions due to the competencies they have shown in the working level, displaying high n- Ach. However, to rise further up into senior management, these without high n-Pow will be eliminated eventually.) The best salesperson will be of high-Ach and high n-Aff, while a high n-Aff works well for project managers.
Personally, I find this theory to be a useful mental model - look into your workplace, and consider both your colleagues (peers and reportees), and your immediate boss. Can you confidently identify their motivational needs, be it power, achievement, or affiliation? It’s not hard to do so, isn’t it
It’s probably worthwhile to learn more about these needs, how they manifest in the workplace and the role they play in motivation, productivity, and workplace relationships. I will definitely write another piece on this. Even if you are not interested in how these needs play out amongst others in your workplace, you would still be interested in identifying your personal needs (though if you think this way, you probably belong to the low n-Pow, high n-Ach, and low n-Aff camp).
For now, here’s a rather insightful HBR article discussing the three needs and the role they play in leadership: https://hbr.org/2003/01/power-is-the-great-motivator