Three basic needs that make you want to win

Biographers and business people alike are fascinated by that most puzzling of all concepts, motivation. What really drives people? Why do they seek the oddest of rewards? Why do they keep going against all odds?

Damian Lewis as hedge fund king Bobby Axelrod with the drive to achieve

It is not very hard to assess intelligence or personality. But it is hard to measure motivation. People, say the Freudians, are driven by powerful, unconscious forces that they neither understand, nor can confess to.

It was one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, David McClelland, who argued that we can understand all behaviour in terms of three basic needs: achievement, power and intimacy.

The need for achievement is the drive to get ahead, be successful, be better. People with this need tend to like challenges and to be curious. They are goal oriented but enjoy the means as well as the ends. In a way, the reward is an index of achievement, not the goal. The goal is to master a skill.

Those with this drive in abundance choose activities with the optimum, not maximum, challenge. They choose things they believe they can achieve (with effort) — neither too easy, nor too difficult. They certainly prefer tasks where they can take personal responsibility for the outcome, and those where they receive feedback on their performance.

The need for achievement is related to actual achievement. So can it be taught? Can you train someone to be entrepreneurial? We know that those with different levels of this need seek different courses at school and university, put in different amounts of effort to attain goals and react differently to both success and failure.

Others see it as all being about childhood socialisation — how parents encourage and reward independence, competition, skill mastery and planning. They set tough but realistic goals and standards. They vigorously and regularly applaud success and celebrate accomplishments. They expect but do not dwell on failure, which is seen as a natural part of learning. They stress effort over ability, trying over gifts, motivation over talents.

The need for power is the desire to have a serious impact on others — to influence and control people and events. Those with this drive enjoy arguing, tend to be assertive and, even early on, like being elected to positions of influence. They like prestige possessions, even choosing friends and spouses to enhance their status and reputation.

People with this yearning for power seek work, social and family situations that fulfil these needs. Naturally this often involves positions of leadership, particularly political office. Such people are seen by others as strong, vigorous, commanding. They talk about wanting to make a difference. They are also perceived to be in a hurry, brooking no opposition and sometimes control freaks.

The need for power is therefore associated with power-related careers but less stable private lives. Those with this need in abundance do experience more stress because frustration and conflict are part of their lives. Power play has its costs.

The need for intimacy (affiliation) is the desire for close, communicative, warm relationships with others. Those high in this need invest more time in relationships and report more positive reactions when being around people. They smile, laugh and make more eye contact with interrogators; they communicate more through all types of media.

This is not just a manifestation of extraversion. Those with high intimacy needs prefer one-to-one interactions to parties and they listen to others carefully. People think of them not as the “life and soul of the party” or “outgoing, sociable attention-seekers” but rather “sincere and loving” and “definitely not dominant or self-centred”. There is a difference between intimacy and social contact, close friends and acquaintances.

We can therefore plot every individual on a three-dimensional chart. In many ways, good leaders score quite highly in all three dimensions, but it is important to see how they balance each other out. Power can be balanced by intimacy/affiliation, and achievement by power. Historians have tried to understand famous people, particularly American presidents, through an understanding of their needs profile.

A person’s drive for leadership, and their style as leader, can be parsimoniously described by his/her needs profile. Thus the leader who is highest on power and lowest on intimacy will have a very different style to those with reverse needs.

It has been possible to differentiate between implicit (rather than explicit) motivation and self-attributed motivation. The former is manifested in people’s behaviour and reflects their largely unconscious desires and aspirations. The latter is what people say are their motives, but can be accurate only if they have self-insight and are prepared to tell the truth.

Interestingly, we know that implicit motivation predicts long-term motives — the jobs people choose, how they perform, the success of their personal and work-based relationships. Self-attributed (in other words, questionnaire-based) motivation, on the other hand, is a good predictor for the (very) short term — in other words, how they respond to very specific situations.

The moral of the story? Dig deep, look for behavioural patterns, listen to the stories people tell. Profile them on these three fundamental needs. It may help you to predict the (odd) behaviour of your leaders and understand it all the better.