McClelland's Need Theory

Henry A. Murray (1893-1988) was one of the first psychologists to create a systematic taxonomy of human needs. He listed about 20 of them, including needs for order, recognition, nurturance, dominance, and autonomy (Murray, 1938). He saw a close link between motivation and personality. Although most of the needs described by Murray are no longer studied, three have survived: the need for affiliation, the need for power, and the need for achievement.

David McClelland was a student of Murray's and built on his work. He embedded these three needs within a general theory of motivation (McClelland, 1965). The need for affiliation (designated nAff) is the motivation to establish and maintain friendly relationships with others. This is similar to Maslow's social needs and Alderfer's relatedness needs. People high in the nAff desire the approval of others and often conform to the wishes of others. They prefer to work with others rather than alone and in a cooperative work environment.

The need for power (nPow) is the need to control and influence the behavior of others. It involves taking charge and making an impact. People with a high nPow tend to make more suggestions, try to bring others around to their way of thinking, and seek positions of leadership.

The need for achievement (designated as nAch) is the need to demonstrate high performance levels and high standards of excellence. People who have a high nAch are motivated by opportunities for personal improvement and self-success. They prefer tasks that are moderately difficult, have a strong desire for feedback about how they are doing, and tend to work alone rather than with others. In addition, high nAch individuals desire challenging jobs over which they have some control. In contrast, low nAch individuals are more satisfied with jobs that have a high probability of success and involve little challenge.

In contrast to Maslow and Alderfer, McClelland believed that needs are learned and could be developed through training. In a dramatic demonstration, he trained businessmen in India to have greater nAch. Follow-up studies two years later showed that these trained businessmen had doubled the number of new jobs and invested more money in local business ventures compared to those who had not been trained to have higher levels of nAch (Miron & McClelland, 1979). McClelland believed that promoting higher levels of nAch would promote economic development in poor countries (McClelland, 1961).