Achievement: Does It Matter?

We all feel the need to achieve. We want to master a skill and show other people something that we think is a significant accomplishment. It’s our way of proving that we are useful. The more useful we appear to be in the eyes of other people the more we think people will want to be our friends, appoint us to positions of responsibility and attract a higher quality mate. 

We also want to appear useful in our own eyes. When we accomplish something that we consider to be an achievement, it gives us the confidence to pursue bigger achievements. Of course, the whole point of this book is to encourage you to pursue achievements that will result in MPI on your life and on the world as opposed to just pursuing achievement for the sake of achievement, however, one way or another you need to achieve something. Achieving something also contributes significantly to our own analysis of our self-worth. However, this is somewhat circular because our analysis of self-worth often involves calculating the extent to which we matter to other people.

Behavioral scientists have observed that some people have a more intense need to achieve than others. David McClelland and his associates at Harvard University have researched this urge to achieve in the research has led him to believe that the need for achievement is a distinct human motive that can be distinguished from other needs. 

McClelland conducted an experiment to determine the characteristics of people that have a high need for achievement. The participants were required to throw rings over a peg from any distance they chose. Most people tended to throw at random – sometimes close sometimes far away. However, individuals with a high need for achievement appeared to carefully measure the distance where they would most likely achieve a sense of mastery – not too close where the task becomes ridiculously easy and not too far where the task would be impossible. In summary, they set moderately difficult but potentially achievable goals. In biology, this is known as the overload principle. For example, weightlifting strength cannot be increased by tasks that can be performed easily. However, strength can also not be increased by tasks that would cause injury. strength can be increased by lifting weights that are challenging but will not cause injury and therefore be impossible to lift.

One question that McClelland asked was, do people with a high need for achievement behave like this all the time? His research indicates that people that fall into this category only behave this way when they can influence the outcome. They are not gamblers. They prefer to work on a problem rather than leave the outcome to chance.

Another characteristic of achievement motivated people is that they appear to be more concerned with personal achievement than with the rewards of success. They do not necessarily reject rewards, however, the rewards are not as important to them as the accomplishment itself. The feeling of accomplishment comes from the performance as opposed to any money, prize, or even praise. In fact, the research indicated that money was only valuable to the extent that it could be used as a measurement of performance. It provided a means of assessing progress and accomplishment when comparing it with those of other people. However, these people did not appear to want to pursue money for status or economic security.

People with a high need for achievement did seek situations where they could get concrete feedback regarding how well they were doing. The nature of the feedback was also important. They responded favorably to information about their work. They were not interested in comments about personal characteristics such as how cooperative or helpful they were. Affiliation motivated people may be interested in social or attitudinal feedback, whereas achievement motivated people were mostly interested in the score.

McClelland found that college students with a high need for achievement will generally get better grades than equally bright students with weaker achievement needs. He proposes that this is because such people habitually spend time thinking about doing things better. When they think in achievement terms as opposed to any other framework, things start to happen. Beyond academic success, achievement motivated people to tend to get more raises and promoted in less time. Companies that have many such people tend to grow faster and become more profitable. 

An important question is whether this is something that can be taught. McClelland is convinced that it can and has developed training programs for business people that have been specifically designed to increase their achievement motivation. He has developed similar programs for other segments of the population.

Although achievement motivated people can be the backbone of most organizations do they also make good managers? Achievement motivated people to get ahead as a result of their individual ability as producers. When they are placed in management positions, their success is not solely dependent on their own activity but on the activity of the group. As a result of their own high expectations of themselves they often lack the human skills and patience required to effectively manage other people who are competent but perhaps have a higher need for affiliation. When confronted with this situation, an overemphasis on results causes frustration and prevents the group from reaching its potential. The net result of all of this is that achievement motivated people are critical in organizations but may not be the best managers if their people management skills have not been sufficiently developed. This situation is very common in organizations that have superstar salespeople. The salespeople are often extremely good at selling a product or service or even the mission of an organization, however, they can often be much less effective when they have to manage other people to do the same. In the meantime, the salespeople are often compensated based on their own personal sales and this gives them a methodology to measure their success and the ability to control their own future. Controlling or influencing the future of other people requires a different skill set.

McClellan has found that achievement motivated people are more likely to come from families where the parents held certain expectations for their parents. These parents expect their children to start showing signs of independence between the ages of six and eight. This involves making their own choices, finding their way around the neighborhood, and taking care of themselves in the house.

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