We learn about the differences in human motivation in the sandbox. Remember your own childhood friends: which one helped you with the construction of a sand castle just because, at that moment, all the kids were working on it, and which one wanted to realise his architectural vision? Maybe someone only helped just because you offered the contents of your lunchbox as a reward?

Do you know what motivates your best workers?

It turns out that the differences in motivation exist in the context of work as well. These differences explain, for example, why some people choose to leave well-paid positions to find a job where they can prove themselves, or why some employees will be reluctant to take up on a promotion offer if it will mean a decline of the collegial relationships. So, how to determine the motivations of each employee, and how to use this information to achieve more successful results?

Half a century ago David McClelland asked himself the same question. During years of research that brought him a deserved fame and respectability he popularized a few essential findings that have changed the way we look at our employees ever since.

Did you know that pay level only explains less than 2% of the job satisfaction? (Judge et al., 2010)

Money has a considerably smaller role in the human motivation than we usually think. Although people often assign a great significance to money while talking about their or others’ desires and requirements, an increase in salary does not mean a definite increase in the amount or quality of the job done, nor in the job satisfaction. Despite this paradox, money both back then and now is the primary motive that the managers use in order to improve staff performance. The explanation of this phenomenon can be found partly in the ease with which one can manipulate with the pay level – it does not ask for an in-depth analysis of the situation, and, one might think, it works for everybody. (McClelland, 1967)

What is actually the foundation of the job motivation?

The three main motives in every person’s job motivation are three needs: for power, for achievement, and for affiliation. Most of the people are motivated by at least one of these needs, and, typically, one of them is more pronounced than the others. Further on we shall study how to determine the dominant need for every employee, and how to use it for the best results.

The conquerors of Everest

The need for achievement is found in people who, more than anything, want to improve their performance, achieve excellence, and fulfil their goals. These are the employees whose eyes lit up when they meet a good challenge, and who maintain a certain level of independence in their work. Internally this need is fuelled by a desire for action; externally – by the wish to fulfil the expectations of others. If these people perceive their assigned task as interesting enough, they will actively learn and work towards solving it, trying to reach the best possible solution. The best reward for these people is an appreciation – which can be either material or verbal – of their achievements, so it is important not to forget to praise them from time to time. On the other hand, there is nothing more demoralising to these people than boring, too simple or impossible tasks (McClelland, 1961; McClelland, 1985). They might be excellent programmers or fit in any other position that requires a certain amount of mental labour.

How to recognize and employ the leaders?

The need for power is dominating in the employees whose main ambition in a workplace is to control, lead or influence others. These people like to see things going on their way. They can be recognized by a tendency to teach and encourage others, to assume the control and organisation of work related activities. Such employees sometimes take on an unofficial leadership over other workers in solving different tasks and projects. These employees highly value discipline and hierarchy in a company. When they find themselves having no control over a situation they are in, these people become frustrated and easily annoyed. These employees not only gladly undertake a managerial role; they often also do it very well – they can set clear organizational goals, demonstrate and provoke in others team spirit, exhibit a sense of responsibility (McClelland, 1985, McClelland & Burnham, 2003). They could be great project, team and department leaders.

In which employees lives the team spirit?

The need for affiliation is characteristic for people for whom the most important are positive relationships with others. These are the employees that spend much time getting to know their colleagues, respect the norms and values of their company and collective, and try to avoid any conflicts. They want to feel accepted and liked and therefore choose cooperation over competition. These people are best suited for teamwork or for a job in positions requiring a regular interaction with other people – clients or partners. On the other hand, these people will feel a strong discomfort if they are given a position where they need to confront others. When including these employees in group projects, it is worth to encourage them to share their views, and to promise that them speaking their mind will not lead to a tense atmosphere (McClelland, 1985). In the IT field these people are well suited for a job in which one can communicate with others, at the same time avoiding conflicts – for example, for a job as a support specialist.

Most likely every one of our readers right now can imagine at least one typical representative from each type of motivation. It is worth it to take some time to consider the motivation category for each employee – even more so because it helps finding the best position for each worker. And which category do you call your own? Compare your own view with your result in a test that is offered by The Online Research Consortium  here: http://www.utpsyc.org/TATintro/ .



  1. Judge, T. A., Piccolo, R. F., Podsakoff, N. P., Shaw, J. C., & Rich, B. L. (2010). The relationship between pay and job satisfaction: A meta-analysis of the literature. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 77, 157-167.
  2. McClelland, D. C. (1961). The achieving society. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.
  3. McClelland, D. C. (1967). Money as a motivator: Some research insights. McKinsey Quarterly, 4 (2), 10-21.
  4. McClelland, D. C. (1985). Human motivation. Glenview, Ill: Scott, Foresman.
  5. McClelland, D. C., & Burnham, D. H. (2003). Power is the great motivator. Harward Business Review, 81 (1), 117-126.