Understanding the power of human motivations is a crucial aspect of effective leadership and interpersonal relationships. David McClelland, a prominent psychologist, revolutionised the field by identifying three key human motivations: achievement, affiliation, and power.

Here, we will delve into McClelland’s groundbreaking work, exploring the impact of these social motives and providing valuable insights for leaders. Additionally, we will touch upon the intersection of neuroscience and quantum science to enhance our understanding of these motivations.

Human Motivations and Leadership

As a leader, gaining insights into your motivations is crucial for understanding your inner self and enhancing your effectiveness. It prompts introspection when you find yourself exhibiting certain behaviours. It leads you to ask essential questions such as: “Why am I engaging in this behaviour? What motivates me? What outcomes am I striving for? Are my actions constructive? Do they align with my goals?” In a workplace context, comprehending human motivations empowers you to better understand your team members. When you grasp what drives them, motivating, engaging, and rewarding them becomes more seamless. Consequently, engaged and motivated individuals tend to deliver exceptional work.

1. The Motive For Achievement

The achievement motive embodies a person’s quest for personal accomplishment and excellence. Those with a high drive for achievement often display a robust desire to set and achieve challenging goals. Research by McClelland and his colleagues has established a close link between this motive and entrepreneurial success. This motive aligns with a preference for tasks that offer personal responsibility and performance feedback.

Consider Elon Musk, the visionary entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX. His relentless pursuit of audacious goals, such as revolutionizing the electric vehicle industry and colonizing Mars, epitomizes the achievement motive.

In the professional realm, individuals with a need for achievement tend to zero in on goals. They strive to enhance their performances and achieve measurable and tangible results. Typically, they are success-oriented and excel in self-discipline, punctuality, and responsibility.

Such individuals value personal responsibility, so they crave specific feedback on the results they have contributed, not on the process or teamwork. They generally exude confidence in their ability to deliver and improve with feedback and practice.

However, there is a downside. Achievement-driven individuals can appear highly competitive. Their insistence on high standards can make them overly pushy and demanding. They often struggle to work effectively in teams, as their motivation decreases when working on a team project rather than something they perceive as a result of their efforts.

2. The Motive For Affiliation

The affiliation motive drives an individual’s longing for deep and meaningful connections with others. People with this motive thrive in social interactions, seek harmony, and strive to build rapport within their personal and professional circles. McClelland’s research highlights the crucial role of this motive in shaping team dynamics and promoting effective leadership.

Take Bill Gates, for instance, the co-founder of Microsoft and a philanthropist. Gates embodies the affiliation motive through his dedication to collaboration and relationship-building. He has successfully established partnerships and initiated global projects to address pressing social issues, such as disease eradication and education accessibility.

Moreover, individuals with this motive display empathy, nurturing, and caring attributes. They often place people and relationships above tasks, which can lead to difficulties when making decisions that could potentially harm people or relationships.

On the downside, this need can also present challenges. Those who approach it with anxiety or cynicism often carry a fear of rejection. They might think, “What actions or words will make this person accept and like me?” Their self-esteem is closely tied to their likability. In some cases, a person with this need may become overly suspicious of others’ motives, causing them to push others away or avoid them.

Conversely, the need for affiliation can also manifest positively. In its positive form, a person’s focus is on helping others, belonging, and being part of a group. These individuals have secure self-esteem and operate on the principle that “I will like you and you will like me, but if you don’t, it’s not the end of the world.” People with this need find motivation in teamwork, cohesion, and a workplace culture that nurtures relationships, such as team-building activities.

3. The Motive For Power

The power motive embodies an individual’s yearning to influence others and control their environment. McClelland distinguishes two unique types of power motives: personalised power and socialised power. To promote positive outcomes, effective leaders strive to balance these motives.

Personalised Power

Personalised power revolves around the desire for personal gain, emphasizing command and control. It fixates on the symbols of success and the appearance of power. This type of power can be exploitative, aggressive, and often lacks substance. For instance, a power-driven person might overstate their influence and make empty promises about advancing someone’s career. Those with a need for personalised power crave control over resources, others, and the environment. They typically possess high skills in engagement and influence, often displaying charisma and political astuteness.

Socialised Power

On the contrary, socialised power aims to benefit others or the greater good. This motive arguably wields the most influence in leadership, as it serves the collective good. It employs influence to accomplish tasks for the benefit of the group, team, or organisation. Individuals with this motivation often see the bigger picture and need to understand how their actions positively impact the collective whole. This understanding inspires them and enables them to use their influence in meaningful ways.

Consider Mahatma Gandhi, the renowned leader of India’s independence movement, as an exemplar of the power motive with a socialised orientation. Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolent resistance and his unwavering dedication to justice and equality showcased his power motive aligned with the welfare of the Indian people.

Whether your motivation stems from achievement, affiliation, power, or a unique combination of these, there exists an innate drive within you that can fuel your motivation like never before. As a leader, grasping the power of human motivations can catapult you to unprecedented levels of success. When you discern what engages each of your employees in their work, you’re on the path to building a highly effective and productive team that achieves remarkable results.

By aligning our leadership approaches with these social motives, we can unleash the full power of human motivations and the potential of individuals and foster thriving organisational cultures.

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Ros Cardinal

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.