The 3 Gifts They Want Most (But Will Never Ask): The Science Behind Subconscious Needs

by Jesse Lahey on December 18, 2013

3 Gifts They Want Most | | Photo courtesy of Depositphotos (410165).1In the 1930s, Harvard psychology professor Henry Murray analyzed the motivations of people. Rather than directly asking people what motivated them, he developed an exercise (still widely taught and used today) to identify their subconscious thought patterns. Murray identified over 300 human needs. In the 1940s, these needs were organized and prioritized by psychologist Abraham Maslow into the famous Hierarchy of Needs pyramid.

In the 1950s and 1960s, another Harvard psychology professor named David McClelland, a former student of Maslow, led a team that did further research on Murray’s 300 needs. They discovered that three of the needs — which became known as the Social Motives or the Three Needs — are the most common by far:

  • Achievement: Needs to complete tasks, accomplish goals, take moderate risks, master a task or situation, and receive regular feedback on progress and achievements. Likes excellence, efficiency, career advancement, beating competition, beating past personal records, and being unique. Prefers individual work, and responds well to individual incentives.
  • Affiliation: Needs to belong to a group, to be accepted and liked, and to create and maintain close personal relationships. Likes friendships, socializing, collaboration rather than competition, and certainty rather than risk; avoids conflict, negative notice, and being disliked by anyone. Prefers to work in groups, and prefers group incentives.
  • Impact (also known as Power): Needs to influence, teach, or encourage others. Likes status, prestige, reputation, influential relationships, accomplishing group goals, and making a difference in people’s lives. Prefers to pursue the “big picture” or long-term purpose, even if it requires change or flexibility, and even if no feedback or negative feedback is received.

“97% of U.S. knowledge workers are driven by at least one of the Three Needs.” (tweet this)

McClelland found that over 80% of all people worldwide are motivated by some combination of the Three Needs. This is true whether people are rich or poor, and from developed or undeveloped nations. Even more remarkable, McClelland and later research led by David Burnham discovered that 97% of U.S. knowledge workers are driven by at least one of the Three Needs.

Whether people know it or not, what they really want is one or more of the Three Needs. As a leader, are you helping them get what they really want?

For more about the Three Needs, you may be interested in:

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the Engaging Leader podcast and managing principal of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. If you know anyone who would benefit from this information, please share it!

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