top of page

The Trifecta of Motivation: Affiliation, Power, and Achievement

Updated: Sep 4, 2018

When I’m interviewing job candidates, one of my favorite questions to ask is:

“What do you love about your current job? What gets you jazzed up about going into work every day?”

I find it to be a great window into a person’s psyche. I get to learn what drives this person and how this person derives meaning in his day-to-day work. And, the answers run the gamut. Some folks love the people they work with and immediately start gushing about their teams. Others love the challenge of their role and go on about how they are constantly learning. Others talk about the responsibility they have to their teams and clients. One guy told me he loved how short his commute was (he was not joking, and no, he didn’t get the job.)

Each of us is motivated by different things. For each of the people that you manage, could you answer:

  • What does this person love most about his role?

  • Why would this person leave his current job?

  • What’s the best way to reward or praise this individual?

As a manager, understanding what uniquely drives your team members is critical for understanding how to incentivize, develop, and structure work for your team for maximum motivation. Just like we discussed that goals cannot be applied uniformly across every situation, and that financial compensation is also not straightforward, today we are going to discuss how individuals are not motivated in exactly the same way.

Remember when you were 19, sitting in your Psych 101 lecture hall and learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? The idea behind Maslow was that every human has a basic set of needs and that more basic needs must be satisfied before higher order needs (e.g., self-actualization) can be attended to.

But, do you remember learning about McLelland’s Needs Theory? Coming 20 years after Maslow, psychologist David McLelland explored a different set of innate needs that each of us has. He explored how the basic human need for achievement, power, and affiliation impacts how an individual is motivated, particularly in the work context. Each of us is driven by a combination of these three needs, yet, most of us are primarily motivated by one type. And, if our dominant need is not met, we are likely to be demotivated at work and at risk of leaving.

So, to be a great manager, it’s helpful to understand each need type and specifically how to structure work, provide praise, and reward performance based on an individual’s dominant need.

Achievement, Power, and Affiliation And What They Tell Us About Managing Hypothetical Employees Harriet, Anna, and Jo

1. Achievement

Harriet, who has a strong need for achievement, is motivated by setting and accomplishing goals. She likes to see progress, and likes to receive regular feedback along the way. Harriet is drawn to work where success is clearly accomplished through effort and merit.

What’s the best way to manage Harriet?

  • Promotions matter a lot to Harriet, as they are a highly visible signal of upward progress. Make sure she understands how and when a promotion can happen.

  • Give Harriet projects where outcomes can be attributable to her efforts. She likes projects that are challenging, but not so challenging where luck has to have a big part in their success.

  • Praise Harriet’s completion of tasks and recognize her specific contribution to accomplishing the task.

2. Power

Anna’s dominant need is power; therefore she is motivated by competition and the ability to influence others and exert control. Anna thoroughly enjoys winning arguments and enjoys having status or prestige in her job.

What’s the best way to manage Anna?

  • To reward work done well, increase Anna’s responsibility and ownership over projects. Provide her the responsibility of managing and driving a team.

  • Praising Anna when she comes up with the right approach or is correct about an idea means a lot. Validate the impact that Anna’s ideas and work have on a decision or project outcome. Shooting an email (and bcc’ing or cc’ing Anna) to a senior team member where you praise her is highly motivating.

  • Give Anna projects that have a competitive tilt (e.g., sales goals).

3. Affiliation

Jo’s dominant need is affiliation. Jo is motivated by belonging to a group and feeling a strong sense of community in her workplace. Jo loves collaborating with others and cultivating a sense of attachment to those around her.

What’s the best way to manage Jo?

  • Make sure Jo feels part of the team at all times and that she is accepted by the group. Spend time building a personal relationship with Jo and creating space for mentorship. Keep your eyes open for situations where she could feel socially excluded.

  • Praise Jo by sharing how she’s impacted the team and the organizational culture.

  • Encourage Jo to take on roles and projects that involve building relationships and engaging with different members of the organization.

So what should you do next as a manager? My suggestion is to learn what motivates each of your team members and if they have a dominant need (and think about what motivates you!) Observe what gets your team members excited. Observe what types of praise resonate the most with them. Create a super arbitrary office contest and see which of your employees cares THE MOST about winning (really easy to suss out those types…). And finally, just ask your people what they love most about their job and what motivates them to get up in the morning.


  • Each of us is motivated by a mixture of three basic needs. Most of us have a dominant need which primarily drives how we are motivated.

  • Understanding one’s dominant need helps to understand what is motivating to the individual, and specifically how to structure work, provide praise, and reward performance.

  • The three needs are achievement, affiliation, and power. Someone with a deep need for achievement is motivated by setting and accomplishing goals and showing progress. Someone with a deep need for affiliation cares about his community and about being liked by those around him. And, someone with a deep need for power cares about his ability to influence and compete.

PS. If you’ve read this far, congratulations (!), especially to those of you with a need for achievement! That is an accomplishment worth recognizing. And to those of you who are motivated by a need for power, here’s an arbitrary competition: the first three people to email me who the hypothetical employees in this blog are named after get a surprise gift! Woo hoo!


Recent Posts

See All

Making Work Meaningful

10 years ago I was walking on a remote beach in South Africa with my boyfriend at the time. A woman and her dog walked past us. The dog, an English bulldog, was wearing a harness attached to a big tir

The Performance Improvement Plan

First, a story with a protagonist I adore: my little brother, Thomas. At 24, Thomas is a classic millennial who is currently making his way through med school. But, my story is not about med school or


bottom of page