Mcclellands Acquired Needs Theory

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Employee motivation has been viewed by organizations as one of the most important areas of focus for a long time, and continues to remain so. Consequently it is among the most frequently explored and discussed topics in organizational studies. Over time, all the effort that has been devoted to the study of motivation has resulted in numerous theories of motivation. These theories of motivation are commonly classified into two major categories – content theories of motivation and process theories of motivation.

This paper looks at two of the key theories of employee motivation that exist and their relevance in modern organizations. It discusses each theory in brief and examines how knowledge of these theories can be a useful tool for managers to improve employee satisfaction and productivity in organizations. Additionally it looks at the implications of a multicultural workforce on existing motivation theories.

Content theories of motivation are those that focus on figuring out the personal needs and goals that significantly influence individual motivation (Armstrong, 2012). The four most prominent content or “need-based” theories are Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1954), Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene “two-factor” Theory (1959), Alderfer’s Existence, Relatedness and Growth Theory (1972) and McClelland’s Acquired Needs Theory (1961). Among these theories, the acquired needs theory has received the most substantial research support and continues to contribute to contemporary studies of motivation (Miner, 2005). We shall thus examine this content theory in more detail in the following section.

McClelland’s Acquired Needs Theory

Developed by psychologist David McClelland in the 1950s, this theory states that a person’s needs are “learned” or altered by social conditions and life experiences. In particular McClelland identified three learned needs – Need for Achievement (nAch), Need for Affiliation (nAff) and Need for Power (nPow) (McClelland, 1961).

People with high nAch have a strong desire to assume personal responsibility for performing a task, tend to set difficult goals, and have a strong desire for performance feedback (Riipinen, 1994; Cherrington, 1991; McClelland, Atkinson, Clark & Lowell, 1953).

Individuals with high nAff tend to have little position power, have a strong need to work through interpersonal relationships and try to avoid conflict and confrontation (Miner, 2005).

According to McClelland, need for power is to make others behave in a way in which otherwise they would not have been behaved. He also distinguishes between two types of nPow – personalized power and socialized power. People who derive power by sheer dominance over others and who gain satisfaction by conquering others exhibit a need for personalized power. People who view power as a means of helping others and derive satisfaction by achieving group/team goals exhibit a need for socialized power.

The acquired needs theory can be a very useful tool for managers in various organizational contexts. People (for example successful entrepreneurs) who have high nAch are motivated more by the prospect of achievement satisfaction, not money. In contrast, employees with a low nAch perform their work better when money is used as an incentive (Shane, Locke & Collins, 2003). Hence management can assign tasks and responsibilities and design compensation structure accordingly.

It can also help managers determine the best ’employee-job’ fit. For example employees with high nAff can work as effective conflict mediators and do well in client relationship management. As argued by J.L.Thomas et al. (2001) in their empirical study of values predicting leader performance, long-term leadership success can be associated with individuals who require a low nAff, rather than those requiring a high nAff.

The concept of nPow can also help management decision-making with respect to personnel promotions as argued by Wagner and Swanson (1979, p. 71) who state that “the concepts of power needs and power styles should be central to personnel considerations in organizations as well as to individuals who plan on pursuing successful careers.”

Process theories of motivation

The content theories of motivation attempt to explain behaviour solely on the basis of desires and needs, an approach that has led to criticism from some researchers. Also, these theories have not received comprehensive treatment concerning their potential applicability in organizations (Berl & Williamson, 1987).

Process theories of motivation focus on providing an approach to explain the mechanisms and ways through which someone can attempt to motivate an individual (Langton, 2010). The most popular process theories of motivation are expectancy theory, goal-setting theory, equity theory and reinforcement theory. Although several people have contributed to the basic expectancy theme over the years, the seminal work around the application of this theory to work motivation was done by Victor Vroom (Miner, 2005; Behling & Starke, 1973). We take a closer look at the expectancy theory in the following section.

Expectancy theory of motivation

Modern thinking of work motivation is dominated by the Expectancy Theory (Behling & Starke, 1973). According to McShane & Von (2013), employees are likely to consider the following three factors while determining the extent of effort they will put into a task:

The E-P expectancy or the conviction that the effort being put in will result in a given level of task performance. This can range between 0 (indicating that no amount of effort will lead to the achievement of desired performance level) and 1 (which indicates that there is complete belief that the task can be performed)

The P-O expectancy or the degree of certainty a person has that achieving the given level of performance will lead to certain outcomes. The P-O expectancy usually falls somewhere between 0 (indicating that even a successful performance will not lead to the desired outcomes) and 1 (which means total conviction that task accomplishment will lead to desired outcomes)

Outcome valences. Valence is the desirability, or extent of perceived satisfaction or dissatisfaction, for the outcome. A positive valence of an outcome indicates that outcome is desired. If a negative valence exists, the outcome is undesired i.e. the person wishes to avoid the outcome.

Since the relationship between these factors is multiplicative, no motivation will exist when any of the expectancies of valence is 0 (Miner, 2005).

One of the reasons why the expectancy theory has gained popularity is due to the clarity of the guidelines it provides for increasing employee motivation through increasing the employees E-P expectancies, P-O expectancies and reward (output) valences (Nadler & Lawler, 1983).

Some practical implications of this theory in managerial decision-making are as follows (Lunenburg, 2011; McShane & Von, 2013; Nadler & Lawler, 1983):

Increasing the E-P expectancy:

Managers must attempt to assure employees that they possess the skills and competencies required to complete the job successfully. This can be done by performing better person-job matching, providing sufficient resources and time to complete the job, clarifying the requirements for the role and providing training wherever required. In essence, managers need to clearly set expectations and make it possible for employees to attain the desired performance level.

Increasing the P-O expectancy:

Managers must attempt to increase employee belief that higher level of performance will result in valued rewards. This can be done by clearly defining the link between rewards and accomplishment of requisite performance level or by discussing examples of others who were rewarded for achieving a higher performance level. Essentially it is important for managers to clearly link the performance level they desire from employees to the rewards that are desired by employees.

Increase output/reward valences:

Managers must attempt to raise the expected value of rewards resulting from desired employee performance. This can be done by finding out which rewards are seen as valuable by employees or by trying to individualize rewards as much as possible i.e. having non-standard rewards for employees. It is also important to reduce “countervalent” outcomes that may negatively impact the value of rewards.

Cultural considerations on the theories of motivation

Globalization has become a prominent factor in organizational growth. Organizations are now actively participating in other countries and cultures. It is thus important to look at how the existing theories of motivation handle the increasing interaction between different cultures in the workplace. According to Mayes (1978), there are enough reasons to caution against the indiscriminate use of available motivation models in all situations. Lewis (2011) uses the example of differences in attitudes towards teams and teamwork between Western cultures, that are more individualistic, and Eastern cultures, that are more collectivistic, to argue that “culture could be an important determinant of how groups are motivated to work” (p. 972). As organizations expand globally, employees could belong to any country and could live in any country. The additional motivational challenge for managers and leaders is thus to make employees identify more strongly with the organization than with their country (Cullen & Parboteeah, 2008).

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