The three keys to human motivation

The three keys to human motivation
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Motivation. It’s a hot topic not only in the business world but in the personal development world as well. You either struggle with it or you excel at it with flying colors. There rarely is a middle ground.

When you have it, it’s the reason why you’re able to accomplish your projects. It’s what fuels your discipline and commitment. It drives you to cross the finish line and equips you with the ‘why’ you need to keep pressing on.

When you lack it, however, something as simple as even getting started with a new project can be the most difficult thing in the world. Just look on Amazon. There are hundreds of books available for purchase all about being more productive, setting goals, managing your time…all toward the end goal of bettering your motivation.

One of the reasons those in positions of leadership are especially interested in motivation is because it allows them to motivate their teams to bring their best day in and day out in the workplace.

One of the key resources that I refer to regularly when it comes to motivation is David McClelland’s work on Social Motives.

McClelland identifies three key human motivations:

  1. A need for Achievement This need focuses on goals, improving performance, tasks, and measurable and tangible results; it’s also associated with self-discipline, schedule-keeping, and responsibility. It is typically success oriented and lacks a group orientation.
  2. A need for Affiliation This need focuses on human companionship, interpersonal relations, and concern for others.
  3. A need for Power This need stems from a desire to control resources, others, and the environment.

As a leader, understanding your motivations can help you to better understand your inner self. After all, the greater your self-awareness, the better your choices. When you’re behaving in a certain way, check in with yourself. Ask: “Why am I doing this? What is my motivation? What do I hope to achieve? Am I being constructive? Are my actions taking me closer to my goal?”

This type of knowledge can also help you to better understand your team. Think about it: if you understand what drives your team, then it becomes easier to motivate, engage, and reward them. And when people are engaged and motivated, they tend to produce excellent work.

Finally, understanding motivations will help you to see that what works for you may not work for others. For instance, promising someone a key project on which they will work alone is unlikely to motivate someone with an affiliation motive and may in fact put them off.

Now that we’ve covered why understanding what drives us is important, let’s take a closer look at McClelland’s three key human motivations:


If someone has a strong achievement motive profile, then they tend to set challenging goals. Their goals are about out-performing in all areas of their lives (a runner will continually look to best their previous time). They are very motivated by personal responsibility, so the results achieved are down to what they contributed. They need specific feedback on results, not the process or on teamwork. They are generally confident of their ability to deliver and get better with feedback and practice.

However, an achievement motivated person can be perceived as highly competitive, and because of their insistence on high standards they can be too pushy and demanding of others. They often don’t work effectively in teams as their motivation wanes if working on a team project rather then something over which they perceive the results are due to their personal efforts.


McClelland divides this motive profile into three sub categories:

  • Anxious: a concern about being disliked, disapproved of or rejected
  • Cynical: a concern about dishonesty within, or betrayal of a relationship
  • Positive: a concern about liking or reaching out to others

Affiliation is about relationships: establishing and maintaining close relationships, concerns about disruption of relationships, and seeing activities as social. People with this motive are caring, sympathetic and nurturing. They tend to put people and relationships ahead of tasks and can find it difficult to make decisions that will hurt people or relationships.

However, there are some important variations in affiliation as a result of the three sub categories.

Anxious affiliates: Have a fear of being rejected. Their thought processes and behaviours are around “what do I need to do or say so this person will like me and accept me”? Their self-esteem is tied up with whether they are liked.

Cynical affiliates: Are also fearful of rejection. However, they cover it with a confident front. They are often deeply suspicious of people’s motives in relationships and tend to push others away or avoid them.

Positive affiliation: Is concerned with helping others, belonging, and being part of a group. They are secure in their self-esteem, so they work on the theory that “I will like you and you will like me, but if you don’t the world is not at an end.”


Power-motivated people are often highly skilled at engaging and influencing and are charismatic and politically astute. McClelland divides power into two sub categories:

  • Personalised power
  • Socialised power

Personalised power: Is driven by the need for command and control. It is about the trappings of success, and being seen to be a powerful person. It can be exploitative, aggressive, and often lacks substance (eg: the power-driven person may make lots of promises about how they can help advance someone’s career, but they may be overstating their influence and the promises come to nothing).

Socialised power: Is arguably the most influential motive in leadership and is used for the good of the collective. It uses influence to get things done for the good of the group, the team, and/or the organisation.

Whether you’re motivated by achievement, affiliation, power, or a unique combination of two or three, there is an innate drive within you that can fuel your motivation like never before. As a leader, understanding what truly motivates you can propel you to new levels of success, and when you understand what speaks to each of your employees and engages them in their work, you’ll be well on your way to building a highly effective and productive team that accomplishes incredible results.

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