What motivates you?

There is a lot of work on human motivation and how, as leaders, to motivate our people to bring their best. One of the key pieces of work that I refer to regularly is David McClelland’s work on Social Motives.

McClelland identified three key human motivations:

  1. Need for Achievement (N ach)
    focus on goals, improving performance, task, measurable and tangible results; also associated with self-discipline, schedule-keeping, responsibility, success oriented, lack of group orientation;
  2. Need for Affiliation (N aff)
    focus on human companionship, interpersonal relations, concern for others;
  3. Need for Power (N pow)
    desire to control resources, others, the environment.

So as a leader, why is all this important?

Firstly, to help you understand yourself. Check in about your behaviour; ask “Why am I doing this? What is my motivation? Am I being constructive?” The greater your self-awareness, the better your choices.

Secondly, to help you understand your team. If you understand what drives them it is easier to motivate, engage, and reward them.  And we all know that engaged and motivated people give you results.

Thirdly, recognise that what works for you doesn’t work for everyone else. If you use what works for you, you can often be way off the mark. Promising someone a key project on which they will work alone is unlikely to motivate someone with an affiliation motive and may in fact put them off.

All of these motivations have a constructive side and a darker side to them. Let’s break them down.


If someone has a strong achievement motive profile then they tend to set challenging goals. Their goals are about out-performing in all areas of their lives (a runner will continually look to best their previous time). They are very motivated by personal responsibility, so the results achieved are down to what they contributed.  They need specific feedback on results, not 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 then something over which they perceive the results are due to their personal efforts.


McClelland divided this motive profile into three sub categories:

  • Anxious: concern about being disliked, disapproved of or rejected
  • Cynical: concern about dishonesty within, or betrayal of a relationship
  • Positive: concern about liking or reaching out to others

Affiliation is about relationships – Establishing and maintaining close relationships, concerns about disruption of relationships and seeing activities as social. People with this motive are caring, sympathetic and nurturing. They tend to put people and relationships ahead of tasks and can find it difficult to make decisions that will hurt people, or relationships.

However, there are some important variations in affiliation as a result of the three sub categories.

Anxious affiliates: Have a fear of being rejected.  Their thought processes and behaviours are around “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.

Cynical affiliates: Are also fearful of rejection; however they cover it with a confident front. They are often deeply suspicious of people’s motives in relationships and tend to push others away or avoid them.

Positive affiliation: Is concerned with helping others, belonging, being part of a group. They are secure in their self-esteem, so 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”.


Power motivated people are often highly skilled at engaging and influencing and are charismatic and politically astute. McClelland divided power into two sub categories:

  • personalised power
  • socialised power

Personalised power: Is driven by the need for command and control. It is about the trappings of success, and being seen to be a powerful person. It can be exploitative, aggressive and often lacks substance (eg:  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).

Socialised power: Is arguably the most influential motive in leadership and is used for the good of the collective. It is uses influence to get things done for the good of the group, the team, the organisation.

Someone with a power motive may describe it as “the light side and the dark side”. Even with high socialised power, often personal power lurks in the background. A power motivated leader may need to check in with themselves regularly, testing “Why am I REALLY doing this?

I’d love to hear from you – What is your key social motive? What works for you and what do you find challenging?

Contact Ros for leadership development, coaching and facilitation, or if you have questions about the topics – or visit Shaping Change at

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