Motivation – As Simple As The Three Needs Theory

In This Article

(Click the links below to move easily to sections of this article)
Why Motivation Efforts Fail
What is the Three Needs Theory
How to Apply the Three Needs Theory in the Workplace
Why the Three Needs Theory is Important to Motivation
Video: Improving Motivation with the Three Needs Theory
Quiz: Applying McClelland’s Three Needs Theory to the Workplace
Motivation in the Workplace Article Series

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Why Motivation Efforts Fail

Ask any manager who gives the same reward to a group of employees and he or she will likely tell you that some employees were more enthused than others. He or 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. This is necessary because motivation is differential and using a hit-and-miss motivation strategy will give you limited organizational returns.

Fortunately, The Three Needs Theory (also known as the Learned Needs Theory) provides critical insights about human nature that you can use to broaden the impact of your motivational efforts to lead your team successfully.

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What is the Three Needs Theory

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The Three Needs Theory was developed by psychologist, David McClelland.

This influential psychologist made the very important observation that human beings have varying needs for achievement, affiliation, and power. His observations include the following:

  • 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.
  • 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.
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How to Apply the Three Needs Theory in the Workplace

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Successful leaders are skilled at determining the three-need profiles of their employees even if they do it intuitively.

If you listen to the insights of successful leaders, you’ll often see a common theme. Specifically, these leaders understand that their employees have varying workplace needs. These successful leaders recognize that for their different employees some needs are just more important than others.

So, how do these leaders determine the three needs profiles of their employees?

First, you’ll find that these successful leaders are great listeners and they use this skill to identify what is important to their employees. Second, these successful leaders validate what is important to their employees by observing them and questioning them directly. Finally, effective leaders focus as often as they can on finding ways to align organizational objectives to the different, high needs of their employees. This allows them to obtain their employees’ cooperation while also creating a motivating environment.

The Three Needs Theory is my favorite of the various theories on motivation. I like it because it is a simple tool that you can use quickly to improve the motivation of your employees.

So how can you use the Three Needs Theory with your employees?

Since motivational factors differ from one employee to another, your first action is to identify the three-need profiles of those employees working with you. 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.

Great, but how can you do this?

Before you can effectively use the Three Needs Theory, you will have to spend some time getting to know your people. Taking time to listen to your employees more will give you much of the information that you need.

Here’s why listening to your employees is so important: employees will tell you what is important to them–although they won’t use those words exactly. Instead, your employees will often express what they like and dislike in the workplace. These employee expressions are value statements. Taking time to listen and evaluate these employee expressions will give you insights to the internal motivators of your individual employees.

Observation is another important tool. Look for the work activities that get your employees energized (motivated) and for those activities that drain their energy (demotivated). Observing their emotional reactions to workplace activities will also give you important information. When employees react negatively to what is occurring around them, they generally desire an opposite outcome. This opposite outcome that they desire is what they find motivating.

For example, an employee may react negatively to frequent changes in the assignments that you give him or her because he or she feels that they do not have enough time to do the work correctly. With some listening, observation and neutral questioning, you can learn more about the reasons for his or her frustrations and make changes when appropriate. All of this information that you gather will give you important insights to this employee’s personality style — which in turn tells you which of the three needs he or she values most.

Specifically, by focusing on the higher level need of this employee (achievement), you can create greater enthusiasm and cooperation from him or her. Your employee will also view his or her working environment (the one you created) as one that motivates him or her to give you their best.

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Why the Three Needs Theory is Important to Motivation

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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 peers so they do not value the Employee of the Month Award as much as other employees might.

Finally, other employees do not want more responsibility so giving them increased responsibilities in the organization does little to motivate them.

As a manager leading your team, remember that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for motivation. Just like your family, your employees are individuals with different needs, likes, and dislikes.

Finding a strategy to meet the motivational needs of all employees can be difficult. It is not impossible however. It begins with you understanding the individuals who work with you. Once you do this, you can leverage these insights in your workplace.

With your deep understanding of your employees’ needs, creating a motivating environment is as “simple” as the Three Needs Theory!

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Video: Improving Motivation with the Three Needs Theory

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Quiz: Applying Maslow’s Theory to the Workplace

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Motivation in the Workplace Article Series

Written by Robert Tanner | Copyrighted Material | All Rights Reserved Worldwide

This article is accurate to the best of the author’s knowledge.
Content is for informational or educational purposes only and does not substitute for professional advice in business, management, legal, or human resource matters.

Robert Tanner, MBA

Welcome to my leadership blog. I'm the Founder & Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, a certified practitioner of psychometric assessments, and a former Adjunct Professor of Management. As a leadership professional, I bring 20+ years of real world experience at all levels of management.

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