Have you ever wondered what motivates you and the people you work with and for?

David C. McClelland spent a good portion of his career researching the Achievement motive as it relates to economic growth and development.1 During the course of his research he identified other motives that ascribe to economic growth and development, namely Affiliation and Power. 

This and the following two columns will explore each of these motives in the context of employees’ and corporate leaders’ relationships with safety and how you, as a safety professional, can draw upon McClelland’s research to enhance your safety effort.

McClelland defined these motives as follows:

The Achievement motivated person has a strong desire to succeed and seeks challenging goals that result in job advancement or success in a project.

The Affiliation motivated person has a strong desire to be liked or accepted or forgiven.

The Power motivated person is either driven by personal power or institutional or social power.  Personal power people have a strong desire to control others. Institutional or social power seekers bring people together and influence them to work toward a common organizational goal.

Achievement motivation

During the course of my career over the past 40+ years, I would have to say a very large percentage of safety and health professionals are high Achievement motivated individuals.

Characteristics of a high Achievement motivated safety or health professional2 include:

• Willingness to undertake challenging work with a moderate chance of success (50/50) where their skills and knowledge can affect outcomes.

• Tend to avoid high-risk situations due to the prospect of failure, or if success is achieved it has more to do with luck than their skill and knowledge.

• Tend to avoid low-risk situations due to the ease of success and not really being a sign of true accomplishment.

• Desire working alone or with other high achievers.

• Derive their motivation from professional recognition and use financial gain, not reward, as their measure of accomplishment.

• Rather than seeking feedback on their personal qualities, they prefer feedback on the effectiveness of their work.

• Spend excessive time thinking about solutions to the problems on which they are working, to include various options for consideration.

• Often characterized as having poor interpersonal skills due to their emphasis on achieving results.

• Have difficulty in managing people.

• Tend to be persistent in achieving the goals they set for themselves.

• Set positive goals, in other words goals that focus on what they will do rather than goals that focus on what they will not do.

• Able to put off short-term gratification in order to achieve long-term goals.

• Tend to be more restless and avoid the routine leading to seeking variety or new ways of doing things.

• Tend to be innovative in their solutions with a bias toward efficiency.

• Look for short-cuts to achieve goals, which can lead to cheating.

• Take personal responsibility for their performance.

Managing high achievers

Safety and health professionals exhibiting a high need for Achievement should be given challenging projects with achievable goals. Goals are extremely important to high achievers, so take the time to work with them to set goals. High achievers like to keep score, so monitor their progress and provide them with feedback on how their performance is affecting the achievement of their goals.

To avoid having your high achievers step over the line, be sure to set standards for which you expect them to perform and hold high achievers accountable for meeting these standards.

High achievers have high expectations of themselves and those they work with, including those who manage them. Pay attention to your high achievers’ interactions with your other employees because this expectation can lead to difficulties among team members.

As a leader of high achievers you will want to strive to gain their respect as opposed to managing them through your authority. Draw upon coaching sessions with high achievers and ask questions to allow them the chance to provide input and gain a sense of being valued for their opinions.

Consider having your high achievers become involved in special assignments, such as developmental assignments. They will appreciate the challenge, especially if they have the opportunity to work with other high achievers.

Communicate your expectations in such a way that your high achievers can relate to what you expect. They will deliver if they understand what you expect and what your boss expects of you.

When it comes to rewards, high achievers typically look for opportunities to grow as opposed to monetary rewards. For some, recognition, respect and appreciation will provide the reward they are looking for. The key is learning what they value and, if possible, providing them with what they value as their reward for high performance.

Finally, do your best to keep your high achievers away from the negative people in your organization because you cannot afford to have your high achievers think less of themselves.

Is your boss a high achiever?

Characteristics and attributes that a high achiever boss may exhibit include being the first to arrive and last to leave work, seeking personal opportunities to enhance their knowledge and skills, and continuously looking for ways to improve efficiency and effectiveness. 

They understand the politics of their work environment and draw upon their networking skills to accomplish cross-functional project work. They are open to feedback, both giving and receiving, and are receptive to others ideas. They are prone to make quick decisions and implement ideas immediately.

Often high achiever bosses do not make good managers due to their desire to do everything themselves or micromanage others in doing work for them.

How do you manage your high achiever boss?

You do not need to be the first to work and the last to leave, but be sure to always be on time for work and meetings. Avoid failing to meet project deadlines. Keep your boss’s back; don’t let him or her be surprised.  Become an expert in the area you are responsible for and share your knowledge. High achiever bosses appreciate commitment and initiative, so ask for challenging assignments. Seek your boss’s guidance in dealing with difficult matters or people.



1 McClelland, D.C. 1961. The Achieving Society. The Free Press. New York, NY.
2 McClelland, D.C. 1987. Human Motivation. Cambridge University Press. New York, NY.