What Is Achievement Motivation Theory?

Mary McMahon

Achievement motivation theory is part of the three needs paradigm identified by psychologist David McClelland in his research on workplace dynamics and the different kinds of personalities that can be found in work environments. He determined that varying levels of needs for achievement, authority, and affiliation interplayed and shaped very different personalities. Some would rise more naturally to leadership positions while others might prefer more subordinate support roles. The proportions of these needs could also influence behavior and responses to social situations in the workplace.

Low levels of the need for achievement can result in a lack of motivation for employees.
Low levels of the need for achievement can result in a lack of motivation for employees.

Numerous social psychologists have studied the need for achievement in human populations and the way it impacts behaviors. People often experience both internal and external rewards when they accomplish something. This can increase the need over time, as people seek out experiences that create rewards, because rewards make them feel good. McClelland believed this need played a critical role in the development of specific personality reports and considered this when he developed the achievement motivation theory.

Under achievement motivation theory, an employee with a high need for achievement may tend to be more independent and goal-oriented. These staff members focus on what they can accomplish, and may not be as attentive to other issues in the workplace. Lower levels can create a good leader who is goal-oriented and able to keep a team on track, without being aggressive or unpleasant to be around. Very low levels may result in a lack of motivation, as the employee does not experience any sense of reward upon finishing projects or engaging in other activities.

McClelland felt this interacted with the need for authority, which could contribute to a rise to power, as well as the need for affiliation and association with other people. His achievement motivation theory suggested that employers could screen incoming staff members to determine if they were a good fit, and to figure out where to assign them. A staff member with a high need for achievement might languish in one department and thrive in another, and finding an appropriate place for a new employee might promote general well being and job satisfaction.

Like many psychological theories, the achievement motivation theory builds on previous understanding about social psychology and internal motivations. Researchers with an interest in this topic can use tools like surveys and observational studies to see how different personality types play out in the workplace. They can devise screening tests to help employers place employees more accurately and effectively, and can perform follow-up studies to see how successful their efforts are in the long term.

You might also Like

Discussion Comments


Screening people to see if they are a good fit for a position is a must. But I'm not sure how employees can determine if the candidate is an "achiever." Are there specific questions that can be asked to rate candidates based on this? Or is this an analysis that the employer has to make based on the answers the candidate gave during the interview, his body language, etc?

Even if people are not screened according to the achievement theory of motivation, I'm sure that everyone will eventually end up where they belong. Like the article said, and achiever is going to move up while a non-achiever will stay put or move down in the organization. But if they in the right position from the beginning, that will save time and it will be in the best interests of the organization.


@burcinc-- I have no idea what this theory implies about motivation and job performance. I think the theory is more related to job satisfaction and the hiring process.

What McClelland is trying to say is that if people are misplaced within the organization, this will cause problems. The organization will not run as well and employees will be dissatisfied. The theory is entirely about placing people with high levels of achievement needs in leadership positions while placing those with low levels of achievement in subordinate roles. I'm not sure if we can make any assumptions about motivation techniques from this theory.


This is very interesting. Every organization uses rewards to some degree to increase employee motivation and performance. But if McClelland's findings are true, this means that employees with very low needs of achievement will not be affected by motivation strategies. I don't think that most workplaces take this into consideration.

Post your comments
Forgot password?