Need Theory: Definition And How To Use It In The Workplace

Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 3 September 2022

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The three needs theory defines the factors that affect people's actions and motivations in the workplace. People also refer to this theory as the learned needs theory. Learning about this theory may improve your effectiveness in an organisation through a better understanding of the employees' sense of purpose and motivations. In this article, we define the need theory, explore its importance in a managerial context and explain how you can implement it to motivate an organisation's employees.

Related: Motivation Theories (Definition, Types And Examples)

What Is The Need Theory?

The need theory describes the factors that affect an individual's actions and motivations in a managerial context. American psychologist and Harvard professor David McClelland developed this theory in the 1960s. The theory's premise was that everyone possesses three motivational needs, namely achievement, affiliation and power. Regardless of ethnicity, age or region, everyone has them in varying degrees, but they differ depending on our life experiences and social values. They also directly affect an individual's performance in a professional environment.

Related: Why Employee Motivation Is Important: A Complete Guide

Why Is The Theory Of Needs Important?

This theory is important because it permits you to see what motivates people, and it also allows you to manage their needs and create a better atmosphere for everyone. This theory is extremely helpful and widely applicable, as it is straightforward to use and simple to comprehend. It enables managers to understand the motivations of each team member and helps them to develop individual motivational plans.

Factors Affecting Motivation In The Workplace

According to this theory, there are three factors that motivate an individual. They are the need for achievement (N-Ach), power (nPow) and affiliation (N-Affil). Below is a more in-depth explanation of these three factors:

Need for achievement

This describes an individual's need for success, skill proficiency, control or high standards. People with a strong desire to achieve prefer to focus on challenging projects where only their own efforts determine the outcome and the feedback on their performance.

Since their main goal is to excel in their profession, they frequently avoid both low-risk and high-risk circumstances in favour of those that have a chance of producing a balanced result. Achievers believe that low-risk objectives are too easy and that high-risk goals are more dependent on chance than on work.

Related: A Complete Guide To Management Theories (With 7 Examples)

Need for power

This describes an individual's desire for power to either dominate other people for their own benefit or to attain higher goals. These individuals require neither recognition nor acceptance from others. All they require is agreement and obedience. People whose motivation is power tend to respect structure and discipline. They perform best in circumstances where they can assess their abilities against those of their rivals while also pursuing perfection. Using power to motivate others in the group may motivate them to complete their tasks through friendly rivalry.

Need for affiliation

This describes an individual's desire to contribute and belong to a social circle. Affiliation-seeking people choose to spend time establishing and sustaining social connections and enjoy belonging to organisations. Working in teams or promoting a positive atmosphere at work is satisfying for these individuals. They like to collaborate with people and prefer taking on tasks that allow them to do so. To retain the favourable views that other people have of their conduct and ability, they stay away from high-risk jobs and prefer to carry out their basic work obligations.

Related: Types Of Motivation For Career Advancement (With Examples)

Observations Of The Need Theory

The research conducted by McClelland showed that 86% of people exhibit dominance in one, two or all three of these motivational factors. Those in top management showed a high need for power and a low need for affiliation. The studies also showed that those with a strong drive for success perform better when they work on tasks that allow them to be successful on their own. Additionally, McClelland discovered that those with a strong desire for affiliation were not necessarily the best top managers, but they were typically happy and could potentially be successful in non-leadership roles.

Measuring The Needs Of Employees

The thematic apperception test (TAT) is a widely used tool that you can utilise to measure the needs of employees. The test involves showing an individual a sequence of ambiguous pictures that are without any inherent meaning or purpose. You then invite them to use the pictures to write a narrative or story. The outcome of this written test typically reveals the subject's personal requirements, as they incorporate them into their story. The test also assesses the three motivational needs, vocations, responsibilities and activities to determine their order of suitability for the subject.

Related: What Are The Essential Human Resource Management Objectives?

How To Implement The Three Needs Theory In The Workplace

It may take some time to implement this theory in the workplace, but with a little effort and a carefully targeted communication strategy, you can do it. An effective manager is typically aware of the value of diversity and the many requirements that people have at work. In the end, it is important for a manager to be attentive and to monitor and align employee demands with the business's goals. The following steps describe how to apply this theory in the workplace:

1. Identify the motivational needs of each of your team members

You may want to begin by determining which of the three motivational factors is the most important for each team member. To do this, you can use the TAT or consider the employees' personalities, past performances and behaviour. You can also analyse what drives the team as a whole and identify the top motivator for each of the team members.

2. Adapt your leadership approach to the motivational requirements of each team member

Once you have determined what the main drive is for each team member, you can then try to adjust your leadership style to suit the group. You can also create an atmosphere that takes into consideration their special characteristics and qualities. When leading a group, it may be necessary to find ways to adapt your management techniques to include each individual's motivational needs. These adjustments can assist in maintaining motivation, engagement, productivity and a sense of fulfilment at work.

Related: Motivation At Work: How To Motivate Employees In Their Jobs

Examples Of How To Apply The Need Theory In A Place Of Work

Below are some examples of how you can apply this theory in an organisation:


You can stimulate the achievers' desire for success by providing them with suitably difficult tasks that typically engage and challenge them. This group can function successfully both independently and alongside other overachievers, as success is their motivation. Achievers value true, constructive criticism. You can give them feedback regularly so that they can decide what measures are necessary to promote their efforts.


To motivate these individuals, you can try giving them projects with clear objectives. Due to their inclination to compete and their desire to control, power-motivated individuals prefer jobs that provide them with the opportunity to negotiate or lead others. They appreciate direct and frank feedback that may help them improve. You can maintain their motivation by offering suggestions that may further their job objectives and desires. You may want to avoid comparing them to others and instead encourage them to stay focused on their tasks.


To motivate affiliates, you may want to include them in collective initiatives. Instead of working independently, they may prefer to cooperate and work as a team. You can maintain their motivation by giving them routine, low-risk jobs. Give them feedback in an unbiased, fair and neutral manner. Emphasise their exceptional collaboration and trustworthiness while providing a constructive and realistic evaluation of their work. If you express gratitude for their contribution to the team and offer constructive criticism to help them advance, affiliates are more likely to stay involved.

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