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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Learned needs determine our course in life, March 9, 2008, 3D.

If you were given the task of getting a tennis ball into a box, how would you do it?  Would you stand next to the box and then extend your arm and drop the ball directly into the box?  Or might you position yourself a distance away from the box and toss the ball into it?  Assuming that you succeeded in your first attempt, how would you position yourself for a second attempt?   Would you do it the exact same way or would you make it more challenging for yourself and move further away from the box?

David McClelland and his well-known research on learned needs gives explanation for the distances that people choose when attempting such a task.  People with a high need for achievement position themselves at distances that are challenging, yet also have a fairly high probably of success.  People with a high need for achievement are driven to accomplish exceptional and unusual things.  Simply dropping the ball into the box would not provide them with a sense of accomplishment or achievement.   Standing too far away brings in elements of luck rather than skill.

McClelland’s research also identified two other learned needs: the need for power and the need for affiliation.  People with a strong need for power have a built-in need to be in control of others and situations.  McClelland described power needs as being personalized or socialized.  A personalized power need is characterized by wanting power and control for personal reasons—for the gratification that comes from having others do what you want them to do.  A socialized power need is characterized by wanting power to use for the good of others.  A person with a high need for affiliation is someone who actively seeks out the company of others.  They have a strong desire to include others in events and to be included by others.    

Learned needs, as described McClelland, come from experiences in early life.   The stories that children hear and learn, the lessons that they gain from parents and influential others, and the messages that they receive from their environments all help shape and determine what is regarded as important and worthwhile.  Eventually, those lessons influence how people approach life, interpret events, and behave.  People who value achievement as an important quality will eventually come to view opportunities in life as ways to accomplish unusual and exceptional things.  Likewise, those with strong needs for power and affiliation will see and interpret life events as opportunities to meet those needs.  The learned needs that people develop in life serve as lenses by which they see and approach the world.

Organizations are social entities that exist to accomplish goals and objectives.  Power and influence are necessary to bring about compliance and performance from others.  A combination of people who are high in needs for achievement, power (preferably socialized power), and affiliation is needed for well-coordinated, functional, and vibrant organizations.  Organizations of all types need people who achieve, influence, and work well with others.

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2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved