Need for achievement (N-Ach) refers to an individual's desire for significant accomplishment, mastering of skills, control, or high standards. The term was first used by Henry Murray and associated with a range of actions. These include: "intense, prolonged and repeated efforts to accomplish something difficult. To work with singleness of purpose towards a high and distant goal. To have the determination to win". The concept of NAch was subsequently popularised by the psychologist David McClelland.
Need for Achievement is related to the difficulty of tasks people choose to undertake. Those with low N-Ach may choose very easy tasks, in order to minimize risk of failure, or highly difficult tasks, such that a failure would not be embarrassing. Those with high N-Ach tend to choose moderately difficult tasks, feeling that they are challenging, but within reach.
People high in N-Ach are characterised by a tendency to seek challenges and a high degree of independence. Their most satisfying reward is the recognition of their achievements. Sources of high N-Ach include:
- Parents who encouraged independence in childhood
- Praise and rewards for success
- Association of achievement with positive feelings
- Association of achievement with one's own competence and effort, not luck
- A desire to be effective or challenged
- Intrapersonal Strength
The pioneering research work of the Harvard Psychological Clinic in the 1930s, summarised in Explorations in Personality, provided the start point for future studies of personality, especially those relating to needs and motives. David C. McClelland's and his associates' investigations of achievement motivation have particular relevance to the emergence of leadership. McClelland was interested in the possibility of deliberately arousing a motive to achieve in an attempt to explain how individuals express their preferences for particular outcomes — a general problem of motivation. In this connection, the need for achievement refers to an individual's preference for success under conditions of competition. The vehicle McClelland employed to establish the presence of an achievement motive was the type of fantasy a person expressed on the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), developed by Christiana Morgan and Henry Murray, who note in Explorations in Personality that "...when a person interprets an ambiguous social situation he is apt to expose his own personality as much as the phenomenon to which he is attending... Each picture should suggest some critical situation and be effective in evoking a fantasy relating to it" (p531). The test is composed of a series of pictures that subjects are asked to interpret and describe to the psychologist. The TAT has been widely used to support assessment of needs and motives.
The procedure in McClelland's initial investigation was to arouse in the test audience a concern with their achievement. A control group was used in which arousal was omitted. In the course of this experiment, McClelland discovered through analyzing the stories on the TAT that initial arousal was not necessary. Instead, members of the control group — individuals who had had no prior arousal — demonstrated significant differences in their stories, some writing stories with a high achievement content and some submitting stories with a low achievement content. Using results based on the Thematic Apperception Test, McClelland demonstrated that individuals in a society can be grouped into high achievers and low achievers based on their scores on what he called "N-Ach".
McClelland and his associates have since extended their work in fantasy analysis to include different age groups, occupational groups, and nationalities in their investigations of the strength of need for achievement. These investigations have indicated that the N-Ach score increases with a rise in occupational level. Invariably, businessmen, managers, and entrepreneurs are high scorers. Other investigations into the characteristics of the high achievers have revealed that accomplishment on the job represents an end in itself; monetary rewards serve as an index of this accomplishment. In addition, these other studies found that the high achievers, though identified as managers, businessmen, and entrepreneurs, are not gamblers. They will accept risk only to the degree they believe their personal contributions will make a difference in the final outcome.
These explorations into the achievement motive seem to turn naturally into the investigation of national differences based on Max Weber's thesis that the industrialization and economic development of the Western nations were related to the Protestant ethic and its corresponding values supporting work and achievement. McClelland and his associates have satisfied themselves that such a relationship, viewed historically through an index of national power consumption, indeed exists. Differences related to individual, as well as to national, accomplishments depend on the presence or absence of an achievement motive in addition to economic resources or the infusion of financial assistance. High achievers can be viewed as satisfying a need for self-actualization through accomplishments in their job assignments as a result of their particular knowledge, their particular experiences, and the particular environments in which they have lived.
The techniques McClelland and his collaborators developed to measure N-Ach, N-Affil and N-Pow (see McClelland et al., 1958) can be viewed as a radical break with the dominant psychometric tradition. However, it should be recognised that McClellend's thinking was strongly influenced by the pioneering work of Henry Murray, both in terms of Murray's model of human needs and motivational processes (1938) and his work with the OSS during World War Two. It was during this period that Murray introduced the idea of "situation tests" and multi-rater / multi-method assessments. It was Murray who first identified the significance of Need for Achievement, Power and Affiliation and placed these in the context of an integrated motivational model.
Whilst trait-based personality theory assume that high-level competencies like initiative, creativity, and leadership can be assessed using “internally consistent” measures (see psychometrics), the McClelland measures recognize that such competencies are difficult and demanding activities which will neither be developed nor displayed unless people are undertaking activities they care about (i.e. are strongly motivated to undertake). Furthermore, it is the cumulative number of independent, but cumulative and substitutable, components of competence they bring to bear while seeking to carry out these activities that will determine their success. Accordingly, the N-Ach, N-Aff and N-Pow scoring systems simply count how many components of competence people bring to bear whilst carrying out activities they have a strong personal inclination (or motivation) to undertake.
An important corollary is that there is no point in trying to assess people’s abilities without first finding out what they care about. So one cannot (as some psychometricians try to do) assess such things as “creativity” in any general sense. One has always to ask “creativity in relation to what?” So McClelland’s measures, originally presented as means of assessing “personality”, are best understood as means of measuring competence in ways which break radically with traditional psychometric approaches. (See Raven (2001) for a fuller discussion).