As a leader, understanding your motivations can help you to better understand your inner self. For instance, when you’re behaving in a certain way, you might ask yourself the following questions.  “Why am I doing this? What is my motivation? What do I hope to achieve? Am I being constructive? Are my actions taking me closer to my goal?” In a workplace setting, an understanding of human motivations can help you better understand your team members. After all, if you understand what drives your team, it becomes easier to motivate, engage, and reward them. When people are engaged and motivated, they tend to produce excellent work.

David McClelland’s work on Social Motives identifies three key human motivations:

1. Achievement

People with a need for achievement tend to focus on goals, improving their performances, and measurable and tangible results. They are typically success-oriented, and usually excel with self-discipline, schedule-keeping, and responsibility.

People who are motivated by this need tend to set challenging goals, and those goals are about out-performing in all areas of their lives (a runner will continually look to best their previous time, for instance). They are very motivated by personal responsibility, so they require specific feedback on the results they contributed, not on the process or on teamwork. They are generally confident of their ability to deliver and get better with feedback and practice.

However, an achievement motivated person can be perceived as highly competitive, and because of their insistence on high standards, they can be too pushy and demanding of others. They often don’t work effectively in teams as their motivation wanes if working on a team project rather than something over which they perceive the results are due to their personal efforts.

2. Affiliation

People with a need for affiliation tend to focus on human companionship, interpersonal relations, and concern for others. People with this motive are caring, sympathetic and nurturing. They tend to put people and relationships ahead of tasks.  They can find it difficult to make decisions that will hurt people or relationships.

The downside of this need is that those with an anxious or cynical approach to it often carry a fear of rejection. Their thought processes may sound something like this. “What do I need to do or say so this person will like me and accept me?” Their self-esteem is tied up with whether they are liked. At times, a person with this need may be deeply suspicious of people’s motives.  As such, they’ll tend to push others away or avoid them.

But the need for affiliation can be positive as well.  When it is, a person’s concern is with helping others, belonging, and being part of a group. These individuals are secure in their self-esteem.  They work on the theory that “I will like you and you will like me, but if you don’t, the world is not at an end.” People with this need are motivated by teamwork, cohesion, and an organisational culture where relationships are nurtured in the workplace (think team-building activities).

3. Power

People with a need for power have a desire to control resources, others, and the environment. Power-motivated people are often highly skilled at engaging and influencing and are charismatic and politically astute.

There are two aspects of the need for power. The first is all about command and control. It focuses on the trappings of success and being seen to be a powerful person. It can be exploitative, aggressive, and often lacks substance (i.e. the power-driven person may make lots of promises about how they can help advance someone’s career, but they may be overstating their influence and the promises come to nothing).

However, the second aspect, called ‘socialised power’ is arguably the most influential motive in leadership, as it’s used for the good of the collective. It uses influence to get things done for the good of the group, the team, and/or the organisation. People with this motivation tend to see the bigger picture and need to know how their words and actions positively impact the collective whole. This inspires them and allows them to use their influence in meaningful and significant ways.

Whether you’re motivated by achievement, affiliation, power, or a unique combination of two or three, there is an innate drive within you that can fuel your motivation like never before. As a leader, understanding human motivations can propel you to new levels of success, and when you understand what speaks to each of your employees and engages them in their work, you’ll be well on your way to building a highly effective and productive team that accomplishes incredible results.

Rosalind Cardinal is the Principal Consultant of Shaping Change, a consultancy specialising in improving business outcomes by developing individuals, teams and organisations.
Ros is a solutions and results oriented facilitator and leadership coach, with a career in the Human Resources and Organisational Development field spanning more than 20 years. Ros’ expertise spans leadership development, organisational culture, team building, change and transition management, emotional intelligence, organisational behaviour, employee engagement, strategic direction and management.
Ros is a Certified Member of the Australian Human Resources Institute (CAHRI), a member of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD) and a Professional Member of the Australian Association for Psychological Type (AusAPT). She holds a Graduate Diploma in Human Resources from Deakin University, an Australian Human Resources Institute Professional Diploma in Human Resources and has completed the Australian Graduate School of Management Executive Program, Strategic Human Resource Management.