Primary Motivators of You and Your Team

by Mar 16, 2021Business, Culture

What drives you: achievement, affiliation, or power?

One of the top concerns for every leader is finding a reward system that connects with your team members and helps them to perform at a higher level. At times, it might seem like a hit-or-miss take on finding what works and what doesn’t.

But it turns out that each one of us is primarily triggered by one of three motivators: achievement, affiliation, or power. This is part of what was called Motivation Theory, developed by David McClelland back in 1961. But it’s also been picked up and built on by more recent researchers, like Daniel Pink in his popular book Drive.

The idea is to better understand what motivates someone to perform. In some cases, people might have a combination of these factors, but there is one that should present itself as the primary driver.

Nurture, Not Nature

It’s important to recognize that these are learned behaviors–you’re not born with these in an innate way. You develop a primary motivation based on the life experiences and events you have been exposed to. You can make a pretty good guess about what someone’s primary motivation is from knowing their past experiences and from observation.

Take, for example, the case study of a salesperson who worked for me. He was one of the best salespeople I’ve ever encountered. And his primary motivator was achievements. He would work endless hours to earn money and success. It was extremely important for him to live in the right house and wear the right clothes–he wanted to be perceived as successful by others.

But he never cared about leading the team or what his title was–he wasn’t interested in power. He also worked well on his own; he didn’t need to be part of a team.

I can contrast him with other people I’ve worked with whose primary motivator was to be part of a team. They wanted to be rewarded for getting along with others and working collaboratively. For people like this, you can demotivate them if you tie their reward system to taking charge or pushing for aggressive individual goals. They want to put the team above all else.

On the flip side, a collaborator is someone who wants power and control. This shouldn’t necessarily be perceived as a negative attribute, as many people seek power to use it for good. But these are the people we often perceive as “A players” inside our organizations: people who want to take the ball and run with it.


As a leader, your job is to watch and observe your team to learn what motivates them as individuals–and then find a way to compensate them for their achievements along those lines. As I mentioned earlier, if you try to reward someone for something that doesn’t motivate them, you might stress them out and paradoxically take a productivity hit.

You might borrow the saying from England: horses for courses. That means that you want to run the right horse on the right course. Some horses run better in mud, for instance, while others prefer running on grass. Think about what kind of track would fit your team members to get the best results out of them.

Implications for Teams

Teams perform best with a diversity of views and talents. We can take this view of motivation to consider the construction of a team as well. An individual with power motivation might be a good leader of the team, provided they don’t overuse power as the mode of getting things done. An achievement-oriented person would be great for some of the tough slogging needed, provided there was a good reward and recognition available for the extra effort. Finally, but not less important, an affiliation person would be great to keep the team performing, settle disputes, and maintain the team spirit for high performance. They’ll do their fair share of the work, too.

Bring Out the Best

Ask yourself which of these three motivators–achievement, affiliation, or power–applies to each of your team members and begin to find ways to help them attain their maximum potential by playing to their strengths. Because, at the end of the day, that’s your job as a leader. Don’t try to put square pegs in round holes.