Need for achievement

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Need for achievement is a person's desire for significant accomplishment, mastery of skills, control, or high standards. The term was first used by Henry Murray[1] to describe a range of actions that include: "intense, prolonged and repeated efforts to accomplish something difficult[, t]o work with singleness of purpose towards a high and distant goal[, and t]o have the determination to win".

The psychometric device designed to measure need-for-achievement, N-Ach, was popularized by the psychologist David McClelland.[2]


N-Ach is characterized by an enduring and consistent concern with setting and meeting high standards of achievement. This concern is influenced by an internal drive for action (intrinsic motivation), and by the pressure exerted by the expectations of others (extrinsic motivation). Measured with the thematic apperception test (TAT), need for achievement motivates an individual to succeed in competition, and to excel in activities important to them.[3]

Need for Achievement is related to the difficulty of tasks people choose to undertake. Those with low N-Ach may choose very easy tasks, in order to minimize risk of failure, or highly difficult tasks, such that a failure would not be embarrassing. Those with high N-Ach tend to choose moderately difficult tasks, feeling that they are challenging, but within reach.

People high in N-Ach are characterized by a tendency to seek challenges and by a high degree of independence. Their most satisfying reward is the recognition of their achievements. Sources of high N-Ach include:

  1. Parents who encouraged independence in childhood
  2. Praise and rewards for success
  3. Association of achievement with positive feelings
  4. Association of achievement with one's own competence and effort, not luck
  5. A desire to be effective or challenged
  6. Intrapersonal Strength
  7. Desirability
  8. Feasibility
  9. Goal Setting Abilities

In the workplace, organizations can find it hard to recognize those who are high in the N-Ach and those who are not. People who need their efforts to be recognized by someone who is in a position influential to them, not receiving the recognition they desire could cause them to become dissatisfied and frustrated with their work or position. This can lead to a myriad of problems in the job, and self-resentment and disapproval.[4][better source needed]

This can manifest as a negative emotional response, however the need for achievement takes its course in different ways. A person will either take small easy tasks that they know they can accomplish and be congratulated for, or they will accept extremely challenging tasks because the high demand eliminates the embarrassment of failure.[needs copy edit] Employees driven by achievement are often risk-takers in an organization, seeking continuous challenges and learning opportunities.[5] These people tend to become very absorbed in their work. This is why they require recognition when a task is completed.[non sequitur]

If a risk-taker feels unappreciated, they might respond by intensifying their efforts, taking more creative risks, and striving to gain recognition. Alternatively, they might seek opportunities elsewhere. To maintain a productive and content workforce, employers, managers, colleagues, and co-workers must honor individuals with a need-for-achievement personality, providing them the recognition they seek. This contributes to a motivated and effective workforce. Here[where?] are some roadblocks for those who have a high need for achievement. David McClelland suggested other characteristics and attitudes of achievement-motivated people:[6][better source needed]

  1. Achievement is more important than material or financial reward.
  2. Achieving the aim or task gives greater personal satisfaction than receiving praise or recognition.
  3. Financial reward is regarded as a measurement of success, not an end in itself.
  4. Security is not prime motivator, nor is status.
  5. Feedback is essential, because it enables measurement of success, not for reasons of praise or recognition (the implication here is that feedback must be reliable, quantifiable and factual).
  6. Achievement-motivated people constantly seek improvements and ways of doing things better.


The pioneering research work of the Harvard Psychological Clinic in the 1930s, summarized in Explorations in Personality, provided the start point for future studies of personality, especially those relating to needs and motives.[citation needed] David McClelland and his collaborators John William Atkinson, Russell A. Clark and Edgar L. Lowell later investigated achievement motivation.[7] McClelland was interested in the possibility of deliberately arousing a motive to achieve in an attempt to explain how individuals express their preferences for particular outcomes—a general problem of motivation. In this connection, the need for achievement refers to an individual's preference for success under conditions of competition. The vehicle McClelland employed to establish the presence of an achievement motive was the type of fantasy a person expressed on the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), developed by Christiana Morgan and Henry Murray, who note in Explorations in Personality that "...when a person interprets an ambiguous social situation he is apt to expose his own personality as much as the phenomenon to which he is attending... Each picture should suggest some critical situation and be effective in evoking a fantasy relating to it".[8][full citation needed] The test is composed of a series of pictures that subjects are asked to interpret and describe to the psychologist. The TAT has been widely used to support assessment of needs and motives.[9]: 12–13 

In 1961 McClelland published The Achieving Society, which articulated his model of human motivation.[citation needed] McClelland contended that three dominant needs—for achievement, for power, and for affiliation—underpin human motivation. McClelland believed that the relative importance of each need varies among individuals and cultures. Arguing that commonly used hiring tests that used IQ and personality assessments were poor predictors of competency, McClelland proposed that companies should base hiring decisions on demonstrated competency in relevant fields, rather than on standardized test scores. Iconoclastic in their time, McClelland’s ideas have become standard practice in many corporations.[10][better source needed]

The procedure in McClelland's initial investigation was to arouse in the test audience a concern with their achievement. A control group was used in which such arousal was omitted. In the course of this experiment, McClelland discovered through analyzing the stories on the TAT that initial arousal was not necessary. Instead, members of the control group — individuals who had had no prior arousal — demonstrated significant differences in their stories, some writing stories with a high achievement content and some submitting stories with a low achievement content. Using results based on the Thematic Apperception Test, McClelland demonstrated that individuals in a society can be grouped into high achievers and low achievers based on their scores on what he called "N-Ach".[9]: 12–13 

McClelland and his associates have since extended their work in fantasy analysis to include different age groups, occupational groups, and nationalities. These investigations indicated that the N-Ach score increases with a rise[clarification needed] in occupational level[clarification needed]. Invariably, businessmen, managers, and entrepreneurs are high scorers. Other investigations into the characteristics of the high-need-for-achievers revealed that accomplishment on the job represents an end in itself; monetary rewards serve as an index of this accomplishment. In addition, these other studies found that the high-need-for-achievers, though identified as managers, businessmen, and entrepreneurs, are not gamblers. A high emotional intelligence calls for a high need for achievement while a low emotional intelligence calls for a lower need for achievement. High-need-for-achievers will accept risk only to the degree they believe their personal contributions will make a difference in the outcome.[9]: 41–43 

An experiment conducted on entry-level managers of AT&T between 1956 and 1960 examined achievement levels over an 8 to 16 year period. The study revealed that high need for achievement (N-Ach) was linked to success in lower-level management roles, in which promotions were influenced by individual contributions. However, at higher management levels where promotions were based on demonstrated leadership ability, high N-Ach was not associated with success. Instead, the leadership motive pattern, likely due to its emphasis on high need for power (n-Power), was linked to success, as it involves a focus on influencing people.[11]

These explorations into the achievement motive facilitate the investigation of national differences based on Max Weber's thesis that the industrialization and economic development of the Western nations were related to the Protestant ethic and its corresponding values supporting work and achievement. McClelland and his associates satisfied themselves that such a relationship, viewed historically via a proxy of national power consumption, indeed exists. Differences related to individual, as well as to national, accomplishments depend on the presence or absence of an achievement motive in addition to economic resources or the infusion of financial assistance. High achievers can be viewed as satisfying a need for self-actualization through accomplishments in their job assignments as a result of their particular knowledge, their particular experiences, and the particular environments in which they have lived.[12]


The techniques McClelland and his collaborators developed to measure N-Ach, N-Affil and N-Pow[9] can be viewed as a radical break with the dominant psychometric tradition. However, McClelland's thinking was strongly influenced by the pioneering work of Henry Murray, both in terms of Murray's model of human needs and motivational processes[1] and his work with the OSS during World War Two. It was during this period that Murray introduced the idea of "situation tests" and multi-rater / multi-method assessments. Murray first identified the significance of Need for Achievement, Power, and Affiliation and placed these in the context of an integrated motivational model.

While trait-based personality theory assumes that high-level competencies like initiative, creativity, and leadership can be assessed using "internally consistent" measures (see psychometrics), the McClelland measures recognize that such competencies are difficult and demanding activities which will neither be developed nor displayed unless people are undertaking activities they care about (i.e. are strongly motivated to undertake). Furthermore, it is the cumulative number of independent, but cumulative and substitutable, components of competence they bring to bear while seeking to carry out these activities that determines their success. Accordingly, the N-Ach, N-Aff, and N-Pow scoring systems count how many components of competence people bring to bear while they carry out activities they have a strong personal inclination (or motivation) to undertake.

McClelland’s research led him to formulate psychological characteristics of people with strong need for achievement. According to McClelland and David Winter (Motivating Economic Achievement), the following features accompany high level of achievement motivation:[9][13]

  • Moderate risk propensity;
  • Undertaking innovative and engaging tasks;
  • Internal locus of control and responsibility for own decisions and behaviors;
  • Need for precise goal setting.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Murray, H.A. (1938). Explorations in Personality. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 164.
  2. ^ McClelland, D.C. (1961). The Achieving Society. New York: Free Press.
  3. ^ "What is need for achievement? Definition and meaning". Archived from the original on 2015-04-23. Retrieved 2012-11-26.
  4. ^ "McClelland's Human Motivation Theory: Discovering What Drives Your Team." McClelland's Human Motivation Theory. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2014.
  5. ^ Jex, S.; Britt, T. (2008). Organizational Psychology: A scientist-practitioner approach. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  6. ^ "Index Examples." David McClelland Achievement Motivation Needs Theory. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.
  7. ^ The Achievement Motive, By McClelland, D. C., Atkinson, J. W., Clark, R. A., Lowell, E. L., New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953.
  8. ^ (p531)
  9. ^ a b c d e McClelland, David C. (1958). "Methods of Measuring Human Motivation". In Atkinson, John W. (ed.). Motives in Fantasy, Action and Society. Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nos-trand.
  10. ^[permanent dead link]
  11. ^ McClellan, David; et al. (1982). "Leadership Motive Pattern and Long-Term Success in Management". Journal of Applied Psychology. 67 (6). American Psychological Association: 737–743. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.67.6.737. ISSN 0021-9010.
  12. ^ McClelland, David C. (November–December 1965). "Achievement Motivation Can Be Developed". Harvard Business Review. 43: 68.
  13. ^ McClelland, David C.; Winter, David G. (1969). Motivating Economic Achievement. New York: Free Press.

Further reading[edit]

  • Breidebach, G. (2012). Bildungsbenachteiligung. Warum die einen nicht können und die anderen nicht wollen (in German). Hamburg: Dr Kovac Verlag.
  • Heyns, R.W.; Veroff, J.; Atkinson, J.W. "A scoring manual for the affiliation motive". In Atkinson, J.W. (ed.). Motives in Fantasy, Action and Society. New York: Van Nostrand.
  • Lenk, H. (1979). Social Philosophy of Athletics: A Pluralistic and Practice-Oriented Philosophical Analysis of Top Level Amateur Sport. Stipes Pub LLC.
  • McClelland, D.C.; Atkinson, J.W.; Clark, R.A.; Lowell, E.L. (1958). "A scoring manual for the achievement motive". In Atkinson, J.W. (ed.). Motives in Fantasy, Action and Society. New York: Van Nostrand.
  • Raven, J. (2001). "The McClelland/McBer Competency Models". In Raven, J.; Stephenson, J. (eds.). Competence in the Learning Society. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Veroff, J. "A scoring manual for the power motive". In Atkinson, J.W. (ed.). Motives in Fantasy, Action and Society. New York: Van Nostrand.