Need for Achievement, Power, and Affiliation

The need for achievement, power, and affiliation are three primary types of motives or motivational drives that influence a broad spectrum of behavior, from how one interacts on an interpersonal level to one’s choice of and/or success in an occupation. These motives can be either implicit—that is, developed prior to the formation of language in the developing infant—or self-attributed, meaning they developed as a result of social and cultural influences. With an understanding of these sources of motivation, one can predict occupational performance and managerial success; design jobs and provide incentives most suited to an employee’s type of motivation; determine the contexts in which employees will be most successful; and design training programs to enhance employee performance.

Implicit motives indicate the generalized orientation of an individual’s motivation, whereas self-attributed motives indicate the context or under what circumstances the motive will find expression. Implicit motives are not readily recognizable to individuals, existing on a more subconscious level of awareness, and are associated with primary emotions such as anger, sadness, love, and happiness. These motives are measured by arousing them with stimuli that are associated with each motive in the form of pictures for which an individual writes a story that describes what he or she imagines is occurring in the picture. The tool used for this purpose is referred to as the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), consisting of a series of pictures designed to elicit the three implicit motives. Alternately, self-attributed motives or needs, referred to with the subscript san (for “self-attributed need”), are related to motives that one would consciously characterize oneself as having and are associated with behavior that is normative for a culture or group. They are measured best with self-report measures, because they are motives individuals would ascribe to themselves.

Implicit motives are useful for predicting long-term behavioral tendencies, whereas self-attributed motives are more useful for predicting short-term behavior that is contextually specific and more related to a conscious choice on the part of the individual. Implicit motives are more readily aroused by task incentives (i.e., a moderately difficult task for someone high in need for achievement), whereas self-attributed motives are aroused by more explicit social incentives (i.e., a task that can earn prestige). Measuring both types of motives together enhances the ability to predict a person’s behavior beyond the individual measurement of either implicit or self-attributed motives alone.

Need for Achievement

The need for achievement is defined as a continual striving for excellence, improvement in performance, and innovation. Those high in this need tend to take intermediate risks and prefer moderate challenges, ones that are not too easy yet ensure some measure of success. Individuals high in need for achievement (nAch) are more persistent in attaining goals and exert more effort when engaged in tasks than those who are low in nAch. Additionally, those high in nAch often attribute success to ability and failure to lack of effort, whereas those low in nAch attribute failure to lack of ability.

Occupationally, people high in nAch are ideally suited for entrepreneurial types of employment because of their preferences for being individually responsible for relevant outcomes, having the ability to select their own goals, the freedom to work toward their goals in a manner of their own choosing, and a desire for more immediate feedback that occurs often and is related to mastery (i.e., proficiency at completing a task). Their ability to readily obtain and use new information may also contribute to entrepreneurial success. Working environments that are less restrictive and allow greater autonomy in terms of procedures and work outcomes are contexts in which the high nAch individual will be most successful. High achievement motivation is associated with rapidity of promotions and increases in salary, in addition to future projections of income being greater for those high in nAch as compared with individuals with low nAch. Of the three motives, nAch can be increased through learning or training, with the result being increases in managerial effort, sales performance, and academic success.

Given the desirable qualities of this motive, employers may be inclined to facilitate it in employees. To do so, employers must be aware that those high in nAch are motivated by the task itself and will perform best if given a moderately challenging task with few procedural and/or organizational constraints, performance feedback, and a goal that is future oriented (i.e., one that will help them achieve a desired future goal). Those high in sanAch will be more responsive to a working environment that encourages achievement and provides tangible rewards for an employee’s efforts. If there is no external incentive, those high in sanAch will demonstrate decreases in performance, whereas those high in nAch (as well as those low in nAch) will not be responsive to external incentives.

There are two paths that direct the energies of an aroused motive toward behavioral expression, and these are polar in nature. The positive path is the motive to achieve success and is theorized to have resulted from positive parental reinforcement for achievement behavior demonstrated by the developing child. The negative path is the motive to avoid failure, which is theorized to result from punishment of the developing child for lack of achievement. Both paths result in need for achievement but have different behavioral manifestations. For example, people who have high nAch tend to persist at difficult tasks when the motive to avoid failure is greater than the motive to achieve success, whereas when the motive to achieve success is greater than the need to avoid failure, people persist at easier tasks. Furthermore, those high in nAch and low in the motive to avoid failure tend to be optimistic about success, set realistic performance goals, and persist in tasks unless there is a minimal chance of success. Those who are low in nAch and high in the motive to avoid failure tend to avoid tasks that will be evaluated and choose easy tasks or ones that are so difficult, few could successfully accomplish them.

Need for Power

The need for power is defined as the desire to have an impact on or influence another person or situation. Those high in need for power have a strong concern for reputation and engage in activities that are highly visible and designed to garner prestige. For them, power needs to be of a direct and interpersonal nature, often legitimized by social systems. People high in need for power tend to have careers such as executives, teachers, journalists, and clergy—careers that afford one the ability to have influence over others. Often, the most successful managers and executives are characterized by a high need for power. Leaders who have high power motivation tend to create high morale in their subordinates, although they may not be generally liked by others (the need for power is negatively correlated with the need for affiliation).

The power motive, like the achievement motive, is characterized by two polarized aspects, personal power and social power. Personal power is more associated with the negative aspects of power and is characterized by aggressiveness and competitiveness, exploitation of others, excessive indulgence, relationship discord, and decreases in immune system function. Personal power is most associated with a fear of powerlessness, whereas social power is related to the motivation to influence. Social power is characterized by a concern for social, group, or organizational benefit and is less egoistic in nature. The degree to which individuals are more oriented to personal versus social power is contingent on their level of responsibility or activity inhibition. Those who have a high need for power and a high level of activity inhibition display more of the behavior associated with social power and fewer of the destructive tendencies characteristic of personal power.

Need for Affiliation

The need for affiliation is defined as the desire to establish, maintain, and/or restore positive affective relationships. Those high in need for affiliation spend more time interacting with others, express more of a desire to be with others (as opposed to those low in this need), more readily learn social networks, tend to be more accommodating to others, and avoid situations that are characterized by interpersonal conflict. Individuals high in this need prefer to work with friends (rather than with experts, who are popular with those high in nAch), to have relationship-oriented feedback, and to work in supportive contexts. Compared with people low in this motive, those high in need for affiliation tend to interact more with others whom they like, like those with whom they interact more, and interact with and like those who are more similar to them in terms of values, attitudes, and beliefs. They are more likely to cooperate with and adopt the views of individuals whom they like and tend to dislike people dissimilar to themselves.

The two polar aspects of need for affiliation are a desire for inclusion and a fear of rejection. The affiliation motive has been shown to be a poor predictor of social success, because it is essentially a measure of fear of rejection. People with high need for affiliation are no better at developing and maintaining quality relationships than people low in need for affiliation. This is likely because of the need for affiliation being related to actively striving for a relationship, which could result from being unable to have meaningful or successful relationships. A new motivational conceptualization called need for intimacy has been shown to be a better predictor of interpersonal and social success. The need for affiliation should be viewed as a measure of anxiety related to affiliation and concern about rejection.


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