Achievement Motivation Theory


Achievement motivation theory explores the factors that motivate people to pursue success in everyday undertakings in their personal and professional lives. It holds that people are motivated to attain success in life by seeking out achievement through setting moderately difficult goals and overcoming the obstacles they encounter along the way. Individuals who are motivated by achievement enjoy tackling challenging tasks because of their innate drive to succeed. They view challenges not as obstacles but as opportunities for personal growth and professional development.

They believe that persistence and hard work are important ingredients in the attainment of success. According to the achievement motivation theory, individuals who pursue excellence possess either internal or external motivation and use different methods and techniques to attain their goals. In the workplace, motivation plays an important role in the attainment of organizational objectives. Employees are motivated by different things. Management teams are responsible for finding what motivates employees and working toward creating work environments that allow them to work at their best.

Background of Achievement Theory

The motivation achievement theory was developed by David McClelland, and it states that human beings are motivated by three main factors that include achievement, power, and affiliation (Aswathappa, 2005). The need for achievement is the strongest and has greater significance in the achievement of success. McClelland believed that the need for achievement was a human intention that was critical to living a meaningful life. He maintained that people who are driven by achievement pursue excellence for the sake of succeeding.

In that regard, they value personal achievement more than the rewards that come with success (Aswathappa, 2005). The satisfaction of attaining a goal is more important than any reward that could accompany it. An individual’s intention to pursue success is determined by three main factors namely the need to achieve, one’s estimate of the likelihood of success, and how strongly the individual wants to succeed (Fyans, 2013).

The theory suggests that achievement motivation is an innate human need that drives people to pursue excellence in their activities (Aswathappa, 2005). The need for achievement is based on two major factors namely, intention and the force of intention on behavior. In an organization, the personal motive of an employee is usually shaped by the hierarchy that the employee wishes to occupy in the organization (Shah & Gardner, 2008). The motive shapes the behavior of the employee in the process of achieving goals.

Characteristics of Achievement-Oriented People

One of the main characteristic of people who possess a strong achievement-based motivation is the propensity to set goals (Fyans, 2013). In their pursuance of goals, these individuals have the need for ‘balanced challenge.’ The balanced challenge can be defined as the need to pursue tough and demanding tasks that build on past successes or achievements without compromising the drive for excellence (Aswathappa, 2005). In that regard, they set goals that are within their abilities to achieve. Achievement-motivated people take projects that match their efforts and abilities.

The theory postulates several characteristics that McClelland considered evident in achievement-oriented individuals. First, they value achievement more than the material or financial reward for achieving their goals (Fyans, 2013). In that regard, they get more satisfaction achieving a goal than from getting recognition for achieving a goal. Second, they view financial rewards as a tool to measure success and not as a goal to be pursued (Shah & Gardner, 2008). Therefore, they are neither motivated by the security nor the economic status that money brings.

Third, they value feedback because it aids in measure progress and facilitates the implementation of change (Aswathappa, 2005). Feedback must be trustworthy, truthful, and quantifiable. In addition, it should contain insights that will help them improve and find ways of doing things better. Fifth, achievement-motivated people choose jobs and responsibilities that offer them the opportunity to achieve success (Aswathappa, 2005).

In many organizations, people with the aforementioned qualities are the ones that get results because the attainment of goals is their main focus. McClelland noted that employees with achievement motives are usually driven by two factors that include the challenge of success and the fear of failure. These employees exhibit analytical tendencies and are always willing to go beyond their comfort zones to achieve certain desired outcomes (Fyans, 2013). Such employees are highly motivated when they work toward projects that have high chances of success.

Employees with achievement motivation strive to achieve their goals regardless of the obstacles they encounter (Petri & Govern, 2012). They are persistent, patient, and aggressive in their approach to handling projects. They set goals that are challenging and that can be influenced through sustained effort. They set challenging goals so that they can get satisfaction when they attain them. Achievement-oriented employees can either work alone or collaborate with other high achievers within the organization (Petri & Govern, 2012). They do not require recognition from their managers because the achievement of the goal alone is a sufficient reward.

Relevance of Theory

The theory is relevant in contemporary work environments because it helps managers understand why employees behave in certain ways. Behaviors such as low productivity, absenteeism, and work avoidance can be the result of assigning employees responsibilities and tasks that do not serve their need for achievement (Aswathappa, 2005). Employees who are not motivated exhibit low productivity and morale. Managers can use the theory to study employees and determine whether the tasks they assign them to serve their achievement needs.

In addition, managers can use their concepts to improve work environments and develop organizational cultures that facilitate the achievement of goals and objectives (Petri & Govern, 2012). Giving constructive feedback and assigning tasks that give employees the opportunity for achievement can be strategies that managers can use to achieve organizational success. Motivated employees play an important role in the attainment of organizational goals. Motivating employees is a tough task because of differences in needs and hierarchies in the organization (Petri & Govern, 2012).

The strategy used to motivate a top management employee is not the same strategy that is used to motivate a newcomer in a junior position. Both individuals have different needs, goals, and responsibilities. Employees are motivated by different work aspects. For example, one employee might be motivated by receiving challenging tasks to work on while another may be motivated by the promise of monetary rewards. Understanding employees is one of the challenges that management teams encounter when developing motivation strategies.

Achievement-oriented employees do not require monetary incentives to enhance their performance and productivity (Aswathappa, 2005). Instead, they need more responsibilities that offer the opportunity to get the satisfaction of achieving desired outcomes. In that regard, it is important for managers to understand what motivates their employees.

Effect of achievement motivation on behavior

According to the achievement motivation theory, people who are motivated by achievement always pursue challenging goals if they feel that they can influence the outcome (Petri & Govern, 2012). In that regard, they prefer to work on goals rather than relying on a chance to get the desired outcomes. Many employees avoid difficult tasks because of the probability of failure. Conservative employees avoid taking such risks in order to minimize their exposure to loss.

Achievement-motivated employees prefer a moderate degree of risk because of the belief that their efforts and abilities will surmount any obstacle they encounter in the process of achieving goals (Petri & Govern, 2012). Achievement-oriented employees will embrace risks, take on challenging tasks that other employees void, and persist in the face of adversity (Petri & Govern, 2012). Such employees will always ask for more responsibilities because of the satisfaction they get out of completing challenging tasks.

Managers can use this concept to understand why some employees request for more responsibilities while others avoid them. Lack of motivation is one of the reasons why employees avoid certain tasks. If an employee is assigned a task that he/she feels does not serve the need for achievement, they will either avoid it or do a shoddy job (Fyans, 2013). Recognizing the need for achievement in employees as a motivating factor is important for the successful management of employees.

Achievement-oriented people set goals and use different approaches to achieve them (Shah & Gardner, 2008). Some employees stay with tasks longer than expected because of their approach of trying different methods to achieve goals. This attitude of never giving up until a certain result is achieved enhances creativity among employees (Fyans, 2013). As mentioned earlier, achievement-oriented employees are motivated when they perceive a task as easily influenced by their ability and efforts.

In that regard, they prefer to work persistently on a project until it is complete rather than relying on external factors for assistance. Achievement-oriented employees set moderately difficult but achievable goals because the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles and achieving the goals is a great reward (Miner, 2007). Every action that an employee takes is based on motivational dynamics such as desires, ambitions, and needs (Fyans, 2013). Achievement motivation primarily pushes individuals to achieve success by achieving their goals. Achievement goals affect both behavior and the performance of tasks.

The aforementioned motivation dynamics can affect how employees behave in different situations and environments. Understating the influence of achievement motivation on employees is important because all their actions, thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, values, and beliefs are shaped by the drive to succeed (Aswathappa, 2005). In predicting employee behavior, implicit and explicit motives are considered. Implicit motives emanate from the reward that is expected from the successful completion of a task. Explicit motives are evident in the rational choices that people make. Research has shown that both types of motives influence how individuals develop their goals and behave.

Many employees avoid taking risks because of the potential for failure that risking carries. As mentioned earlier, achievement-oriented employees set moderately difficult tasks. They avoid high-risk projects due to the high probability of accidental success rather than success based on meticulous planning and focused effort (Miner, 2007). In addition, they do not derive any satisfaction from accidental success. Similarly, they avoid easy tasks because they do not challenge them in any way and therefore, provide no satisfaction. Employees with achievement motivation can either work alone or in groups. However, they are more inclined toward working independently so that when they succeeded or fail they can attribute the outcome to their individual efforts.

Practical Application of Theory

The achievement motivation theory can be used by managers in the workplace to evaluate employees in order to identify their dominant motivators (Fyans, 2013). The information collected from an employee evaluation program can be used to improve goal setting and the process of providing feedback. In addition, the information can be used to influence employee motivation and create effective reward programs. Management teams can also use the information to design jobs that fit the different motivational needs of employees (Miner, 2007).

One of the areas that the theory can be successfully applied in workplaces is in the assignment of tasks and responsibilities. As mentioned earlier, people motivated by achievement usually take challenging projects that they believe can be influenced by their efforts and abilities. They get satisfaction by overcoming challenges and completing difficult tasks (Miner, 2005).

Managers can give the most challenging tasks to achievement-oriented employees because they will work harder and use different approaches until they complete them. On the other hand, they can assign simpler tasks to employees who are motivated by other factors other than achievement. Employees are more productive when they work on tasks that allow them to achieve their goals and objectives (Fyans, 2013). Therefore, managers can influence the behavior of employees by assigning tasks that serve their individual needs.

The achievement motivation theory suggests that the need for achievement is a trait that can be learned and utilized to attain success in different areas of life (Miner, 2005). McClelland believed that economically challenged people could change their lives if they need for achievement was stimulated in them. This is one of the concepts that managers can apply in organizations to motivate employees and enhance the achievement of organizational goals. Managers can develop training programs to instill in employees specific motives for working on different projects (Miner, 2007).

People can learn motives and arrange them in a hierarchy that is determined by the perception of their potential to influence the outcomes of tasks. The process of development involves the creation of positive and negative associations toward events and situation. This explains why some employees find challenging tasks pleasurable while others find them painful. People who have learned to associate pleasure with challenging tasks are described as possessing achievement motivation (Miner, 2005). Such people have achievement at the top of the motive hierarchy. Employees with achievement motivation need minimal achievement cues to enhance their performance at work. The expectation of pleasure from the completion of a project is sufficient to motivate them.

The Use of Theory in Organizational Effectiveness

Achievement-oriented people prefer environments and situations that allow them to achieve goals through their own effort and competence (Miner, 2005). They dislike the likelihood that chance could play a key role in the attainment of goals. Managers could utilize this concept in the workplace by creating achievement situations that allow employees to use their abilities and efforts to achieve results. Employee development is an important motivation factor that managers use in the workplace. Employees work harder and are more effective when they derive a sense of personal growth and professional development from their work (Miner, 2007).

The effectiveness of employees increases when they are assigned tasks and responsibilities that require the use of their skills and knowledge. Managers can also use concepts of the achievement motivation theory to increase organizational effectiveness by creating situations and tasks that are characterized by moderate difficulty and risk.

Exceedingly difficult tasks lower the chance of achieving success and decrease the probability of deriving a sense of achievement after accomplishing them (Miner, 2005). On the other hand, very easy tasks do not challenge employees in any way and therefore, should be avoided. Achievement-motivated employees prefer tasks that have moderate levels of risks and that stretch their capabilities beyond their comfort zones.

Managers can apply the theory to improve organizational effectiveness by using feedback to help employees evaluate their progress and make the necessary adjustments in their goal-achievement approaches (Miner, 2005). Managers should offer clear and unambiguous feedback as a way of facilitating the process of evaluating progress. Employees find it difficult to derive a sense of achievement form their work when they cannot tell whether they are succeeding or failing. Providing feedback is one of the ways organizations use to tell whether the results they are getting are taking them toward success or failure.

The theory also states that achievement situations permit innovation and the development of novel solutions to problems. Managers can facilitate such situations by giving employees the freedom to make decisions on matters that affect their work. Employees get a great sense of achievement when they find solutions to challenges. The theory includes a concept known as ‘anticipation of future possibilities’. It is necessary for managers to create work environments that provide employees with opportunities for future growth both personally and professionally (Miner, 2007). The motivation achievement theory can be used to improve organizational effectiveness because it explores concepts that managers can use to create situations that promote achievement motivation in employees.


The achievement motivation theory was developed by David McClelland, and states that people are motivated by three main needs namely, achievement, power, and affiliation. Among the three, achievement is the most significant and the major focus of the theory. The theory has practical applications because it can be used in organizations to influence employee behavior and improve organizational effectiveness. People who are motivated by achievement tasks with intermediate levels of difficulty, value the satisfaction of achievement more than monetary reward or recognition, and use different approaches to achieve their goals regardless of the obstacles they encounter along the way.

In organizations, employee behavior with regard to attainment of goals is mainly influenced by the level of motivation. Motivated employees are highly productive, efficient, work hard, and exhibit high levels of creativity and innovation. In contrast, employees with low motivation are unproductive, inefficient, lazy, and exhibit low levels of creativity and innovation. McClelland believed that the need for achievement can be learned. Therefore, it is necessary for managers to develop graining programs to instill the need for achievement in employees in order to improve their performance and organizational effectiveness. Managers can use the theory’s concepts to influence employee behavior.

The need to achieve and the fear of failure determine how employees behave or respond to situations. In that regard, managers should ensure that the tasks they assign to employees are not exceedingly difficult. Very difficult tasks affect intrinsic motivation because employees perceive the tasks as impervious to their efforts and capabilities. In addition, managers should provide accurate and constructive feedback because achievement-oriented people need to constantly evaluate their progress to determine whether the results they are achieving are leading to success or failure.


Aswathappa, K. (2005). Human resource and personnel management. New York, NY: Tata McGraw-Hill Education.

Fyans, L. J. (2013). Achievement motivation: recent trends in theory and research. New York, NY: Springer Science & Business Media.

Miner, J. B. (2005). Organizational behavior: essential theories of motivation and leadership. New York, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Miner, J. B. (2007). Organization behavior 4: from theory to practice. New York, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Petri, H. L., & Govern, J. M. (2012). Motivation: Theory, Research, and Application. New York, NY: Cengage Learning.

Shah, J. Y., & Gardner, W. L. (2008). Handbook of motivation science. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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