David McClelland: Biography & Theory

Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson provides some biographical information on the American psychologist David McClelland. We'll talk about his theories on human needs and motivations, and learn how people's needs matter in the workplace.

Who Was David McClelland?

What do you need? What motivates you? Are there things that all people desire or strive for? Many psychologists are curious about people's needs and motivations. The psychologist David McClelland was no exception.

David McClelland
motivation, needs theory, three needs, David McClelland, psychology

Born in New York, McClelland attended Wesleyan University in Massachusetts, where he completed a bachelor's degree, and then Yale University, where he completed a doctorate in psychology.

McClelland was a professor at Harvard University for many years, where he developed his interest in understanding human motivation. In particular, McClelland wanted to understand how people's motivations impact organizational settings. This was apparent in his founding of the McBer Consulting Company with his partner D.G. Berlew in 1961 meant for management training, not to mention his books like Studies in Motivation and The Roots of Consciousness.

Theory of Need

We all know that humans need things like food and water; after a certain point, we simply can't survive without these necessities. But what about beyond satisfying our most basic biological needs? Do some of us want more than that? McClelland thought so.

McClelland came up with a proposition called need theory, or three needs theory, to explain people's needs for achievement, a need for affiliation, and a need for power. Specifically, he developed this theory to understand how a need for these factors impact people in a management or organizational context. Let's talk about each of these needs.

The need for achievement is sought by people who have a desire to accomplish challenging things or master very difficult skills. They tend to like competition and definitely want to win. They hold themselves to high standards. People who have a high need for achievement seek out difficult tasks. They aren't content to sit back and take the easy road! In an organization, employees who have a high level of achievement need are risk takers and become very engrossed in their work. They want to be challenged and they need to be recognized for their work.

The need for affiliation is sought by people who are very concerned about being part of a social group. These people want to be involved and feel as if they belong to a group. Employees who have a high level of need for affiliation tend to be very supportive team members but aren't as comfortable in leadership roles.

The need for power is characterized by a desire to control others in order to achieve goals. Employees who have a high need for power aren't really looking for approval or recognition, like their achievement seeking counterparts, and they are not really looking to be a part of a team, like their affiliation seeking colleagues. They're just looking for compliance! In other words, they want to be in charge so the things they want done get done.

Understanding which of these traits motivates people is important for employers because it helps them understand their employees better. If you know what drives people, you know how to appropriately praise them, or ask them to do something differently. You might also find you have a more productive workforce on your hands if you understand your employees' needs!

Example of Need Theory in Action

Let's think about an example in an organizational setting to see how this works.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account