Scott R. Coplan

A Good Match

The Problem

When I started my company, I spent an extensive amount of time trying to define the best way to recruit and hire employees. I knew our people were the most important asset of our company because they provided the services we offered.
While job postings must include typical items, like job requirements and responsibilities, specific qualifications, compensation, and so on, we had to know more about job seekers before hiring them, so we prepared and executed a well-designed, comprehensive, multi-step screening process. For example, we identified candidate minimum mandatory job requirements, screened those initially qualified to eliminate individuals who did not meet these basic needs, conducted assessments to exclude those who lacked desired job competencies, performed in-depth evaluations through job interviews including work simulations, verified applicant employment history and qualifications, and more. Even though we created a clear and complete job posting and applicant screening process we still didn’t know enough about job seeker motivational needs and whether they matched ours.

How do you define a person’s motivational needs, match them to your organization’s needs, and then place the new employee in a position that serves you both?

The Solution

In 1961 David McClelland published a model of human motivation. It maintains everyone has three principle needs:
  • Achievement – People who favor achievement over the other two needs like task-oriented work, accomplishments, and promotions based on their efforts. Such individuals prefer moderate risk work environments.
  • Affiliation – Individuals who believe affiliation is of greatest importance compared to the other two needs prefer spending time creating and maintaining social relationships and working as a team member in collaboration with others. They avoid competition, fear rejection and high risk situations, and favor compliance over change.
  • Authority – People who prefer authority more than the other needs like power and discipline focus on achieving a goal but tend to operate in groups according to a zero-sum game. For someone to win, someone must lose. Status, competition, and winning drive these individuals. Such power-driven people will help others achieve a group objective, so long as it serves this individual’s underlying motivational need for prestige.

While all of us develop these same needs, as learned behavior, what sets each of us apart is how we prioritize them.

The decision to hire someone, based in part by priority of their motivational needs, makes a big difference to both the employee and employer. The impact can be significant especially in a small organization and during a formative period or critical juncture like a major product launch, new market entry, merger, and so on. However, existing organizational cultures may shape and even change the motivational need priorities of new hires.
Preparing a complete job posting, following a rigorous applicant screening process, and assessing motivational need priorities worked well for us and our new employees. For example, achievement-oriented candidates fit best in project teams and associated management positions, people with a high need for affiliation functioned best in non-leadership roles, and authority-driven individuals fit well in top management positions.
So, how did we apply McClelland’s motivational need model? During an applicant interview, we explained everyone has authority, affiliation, and achievement motivational needs and we wanted to know how you, the job candidate, prioritized your needs. This proved very insightful for everyone. For example, Dixie, a former client applied for a position with us. We knew each other well as a client and consultant, and enjoyed incredibly exciting projects together, like providing quality assurance for what eventually became WebMD. One thing was clear, Dixie’s highest priority need was authority. She readily admitted this to me, during her interview. I explained we could never fulfill her authority need because it included an insatiable desire for power and compensation. She would eventually leave to find more elsewhere. By the end of the interview, we both agreed her employment with us was worth it, understanding it would be relatively temporary. Dixie left us after two years and subsequently hired us as consultants on various client projects. Asking a simple question about motivational needs helped us determine, however temporary, how we were a good match for each other.


McClelland, David C., Human Motivation, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1985. 

McClelland, David C., The Achieving Society, New York, D. Van Nostrand Companies, Inc., 1961.

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