How to Motivate Yourself According to McClelland's Theory of Needs
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How to Motivate Yourself According to McClelland’s Theory of Needs

Kat Boogaard Kat Boogaard Last Updated:

Motivating yourself can be tough, but McClelland’s Theory of Needs can help.

I’ll be honest: As I write this introduction, I’m feeling particularly unmotivated.

You see, I’ve just returned from a week-long vacation that allowed me to spend my time reading, hiking, kayaking, and generally doing only the things that I enjoy.

I didn’t check my email. I didn’t mindlessly scroll through my social media feeds. Hey, most of the time I hardly even knew what day it was.

But, alas, all good things must come to an end. And, now I’ve returned to my daily life—on a Monday with an overflowing to-do list, no less.

You’d think that after a week spent doing nothing but relaxing and recharging I’d be tearing through those to-dos at a breakneck pace.

However, I’ve found the opposite to be true: Simply sitting myself down at my desk felt like a feat of superhuman strength.

I need something to light a fire under me and inspire me to crank through those various tasks and assignments—which means it’s actually the perfect time for me to learn about McClelland’s Theory of Needs and how I can use it to give my level of motivation a much-needed boost.

Let’s get to it!

What is McClelland’s Theory of Needs?

The theory of needs actually ties back to psychologist Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. You’ve probably seen a pyramid like this at some point:

hierarchy of needs

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That’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—and the core concept is actually pretty simple.

It details our human needs and then ranks them in they pyramid structure. The basic needs at the bottom of the pyramid need to be met before someone can even think about achieving the ones that are higher up.

Now where does the theory of needs fit in?

David McClelland built on this work in his 1961 book, ‘The Achieving Society,’

-explains a post for MindTools,-

He identified three motivators that he believed we all have: a need for achievement, a need for affiliation, and a need for power. People will have different characteristics depending on their dominant motivator.

Essentially, while we all possess these three drivers, one is always dominant. So, maybe you’re highly driven by a need for achievement while your team member is motivated by a need for power.

What exactly do each of these drivers mean? Here’s a fairly simplified breakdown:

  • Need for Achievement: The desire to accomplish something in your field. If you’re a writer, maybe that means having a book published. Or, if you’re a doctor, perhaps that involves making a major medical breakthrough.
  • Need for Affiliation: The desire to have relationships with other people. People who are motivated by a need for affiliation prefer to collaborate in groups and have a strong desire to be well-liked by others.
  • Need for Power: The desire to have control or authority over others. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. One important thing to note: People who possess power as their dominant motivator are divided into two groups: personal and institutional. Personal means they just want control over others while institutional means they want to spearhead a team to reach a larger goal.

You might also hear the theory of needs referred to as the human motivation theory or the motivational needs theory—because that’s what it does. It helps you figure out what most motivates you or anyone else.

Putting the Theory of Needs to Work: How to Motivate Yourself

That’s a pretty powerful thing in and of itself, right?

But, understanding the theory of needs is only the first step. You also need to know how to appropriately implement it to motivate yourself—or, if you’d like, your direct reports or your colleagues.

Let’s dive in and figure out how to do just that.

1. Understand Your Own Dominant Driver

Arguably the most important step in using the theory of needs to motivate yourself is figuring out which of the three is your own dominant driver: the need for achievement, affiliation, or power.

Nobody knows you better than you do—so, this should be easy, right?

Actually, zoning in on your own primary driver can be deceptively complicated.

What motivates you can easily shift depending on the unique situation, so it can be challenging to figure out which one should take that first-place ranking.

To get started, ask yourself some questions about some common situations that crop up in the workplace:

  • When you’re in a disagreement with a team member, do you stick to your guns or do you roll over in favor of maintaining a good relationship?
  • Do you prefer to provide directions or receive them?
  • How do you feel about challenging tasks? Do you shy away from them or are you excited about figuring out how to tackle them?

Thinking through how you react in scenarios like the ones above will help you to analyze your own behavior and begin to narrow in on your primary driver.

For example, if you’re more interested in maintaining good relationships than planting your feet and white-knuckling your own plans and ideas, you’re likely highly motivated by affiliation.

Still struggling to figure this out?

It’s not always easy to be highly self-aware, so another thing you can do is keep a journal or a workday log for a week or two.

In that notebook, record things from the day like:

  • Times that you felt highly motivated. What was happening? Why do you think you were feeling so driven?
  • Times that you felt highly unmotivated. Was there anything specific that led to your lack of drive?
  • Times when you found yourself in a conflict. How did you react?

I know what you’re thinking: How could writing those things down possibly help?

It’s easy to lose sight of those details and your own behavior in the grand scheme of your workday. By jotting things like that down, you’ll be able to reflect back after a week or two and pull out any common trends or reactions.

That’s a helpful way to shake those perceived notions you might have about yourself and figure out what actually motivates you in reality. You might just surprise yourself!

2. Identify Ways to Implement it

Alright—you’ve figured out your primary driver according to the theory of needs. Uhh… now what?

Determining what motivates you is helpful. But, it really only gives you a boost if you put it to work for yourself.

It’s up to you to determine how to do that—and, trust me, it doesn’t need to be anything too complicated or involved.

Let’s say that you’ve identified a need for affiliation as your primary driver.

What can you do with that?

Perhaps working alone all day makes you feel drained and makes it that much tougher to buckle down. Head out to a coffee shop or a co-working space where you can be around others.

Create a mastermind group that you can look forward to. Or, even come up with some collaborative projects you could work on with your team or others in your industry.

If you’re motivated by the need for achievement?

That probably means that crossing something off your to-do list gives you a real boost.

Try breaking some of your larger projects down into smaller, bite-sized milestones and goals. That gives you something to work toward—because you have more manageable tasks to achieve along the way. It’s a great strategy to keep yourself motivated and prevent that overwhelmed feeling that can easily creep in when you’re working on a huge project.

There are tons of ways that you can leverage your own primary driver for your own motivation. The secret is to find what works best for you.

3. Continue to Tweak and Refine

Finally, here’s another important thing to remember: Nothing that you do needs to be set in stone.

Did that co-working space idea not work out as well as you thought it would? Try something different.

Do you need even more small milestones to keep you focused and motivated? Change your project plan.

That’s the great thing—you have the control and flexibility you need to figure out how to best motivate yourself, and that’s probably going to involve a little bit of trial and error.

Consider it an experiment of sorts. That means you don’t have to be afraid to make some changes until you refine a system that really keeps you motivated and focused on the end game.

Does the Theory of Needs Only Work for Yourself?

Think the theory of needs only works for self-motivation? Think again.

If you’re a leader, you can also use it to better motivate your team members and direct reports.

Each of your team members can have different things that motivate them. Perhaps one is always taking the lead on group projects (she has a need for power) while another is a notorious go-getter (he has a strong need for achievement).

The process of understanding these motivators works exactly the same: Pay attention and analyze the behaviors of your team members and then use that knowledge to figure out their primary driver.

With that in mind, you can tailor things like your leadership approach and how you deliver feedback to better suit that individual team member’s needs and motivations.

For example, perhaps that high-achiever is craving more challenging projects. Or, maybe that person with a strong need for affiliation would like to be involved in more group projects.

That’s powerful information you can use to become an even better and more effective leader in the eyes of your team.

Moving Forward With a High Level of Motivation

While it’s not always a quick fix (there’s some elbow grease involved in figuring it out and doing it right!), the theory of needs can be a great way to motivate yourself to get stuff done.

It all comes down to taking the time to identify your own primary driver and then leveraging that to increase your level of motivation. And, that same rule holds true if you’re looking to motivate a team that you manage.

Give this a try, and you’re sure to notice an uptick in your own level of drive and focus.

As for me? I’ll be doing that very same thing in order to power through this post-vacation to-do list on my desk right now. Wish me luck!

Kat Boogaard

Kat is a freelance writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. She's passionate about being as efficient and effective as possible—much of which she owes to her 114 words per minute average typing speed. When her fingers aren't flying on the keyboard, she loves to bake, read, hike, or tackle yet another DIY project around her home.

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