Motivation – As Simple As The Three Needs Theory

Managers Working on a Computer Together

Ask any manager who gives the same reward to a group of employees and she will likely report that some employees were more enthused than others. She may also explain that the motivating effect of the reward differed from one employee to another over time. For this reason, managers must have a diverse strategy to motivate their employees. Motivation is differential and a hit-and-miss motivation strategy has limited organizational return. Fortunately, The Three Needs Theory (also known as the Learned Needs Theory) provides critical insights about human nature that managers can use to broaden the impact of their motivational efforts.

The Three Needs Theory was developed by psychologist, David McClelland. He made the very important observation that we each have varying needs for achievement, affiliation, and power. Employees with a high-achievement need want to solve problems and challenge themselves with difficult tasks. They are goal oriented, task focused, and they desire recognition. Employees with a high-affiliation need want acceptance and productive working relationships with others. They desire social interaction and cooperation in the workplace. Finally, employees with a high-power need want to have control and influence over their environment. They desire to be influential in a group or to be responsible for others. Since motivational factors differ from one employee to another, a manager must first identify the three-need profiles of those employees working with her before she can leverage these insights in the workplace.

Successful leaders are naturally skilled at determining the three-need profile of their employees. (Managers must also adopt these strategies to broaden the impact of their motivational efforts.) First, successful leaders are great listeners and they use this skill to identify what is important to their employees. Second, they validate what is important to their employees by observing them and questioning them directly. Finally, successful leaders understand that we each have varying needs for all of these areas: affiliation, power, and achievement. Some needs are just higher than others. Leaders intuitively focus on the different, high needs of their employees. This allows them to obtain their employees’ cooperation and to create a motivating environment.

For example, one employee’s ranking of the three needs might be achievement, first; power, second; and affiliation, third. While this employee will need some social contact and he will want some control over his environment, he will be most interested in challenging work that fulfills his goals and gives him feedback and recognition. By focusing on the higher level need of this employee (achievement), a manager will create greater employee enthusiasm and cooperation. The employee will also view their environment as one that motivates them to give their best.

The value of McClelland’s Three Needs Theory is its simplicity. It is easy to understand and apply in the real world of work! For example, some individuals do not have further educational goals so a tuition reimbursement benefit does little to excite them. Other individuals are embarrassed by public attention and do not want to be singled out from their work team so they do not value the Employee of the Month award as much as others. Finally, other employees do not want more responsibility so giving them increased responsibilities in the organization does little to motivate them. Finding a strategy to meet the motivational needs of all employees can be difficult. It is not impossible however. It begins with a manager knowing the individuals who work with her. From there, creating a motivating environment is as “simple” as the Three Needs Theory!

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