What Really Motivates Project Stakeholders?

Many people are familiar with the classic motivational theories such as Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Frederick Herzberg’s Hygiene Factors and Motivators, and Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y. The basic principle behind all motivational theories is that we are all driven by motives. These motives generate a set of thoughts that influence our behavior, which drives us to accomplish specific goals. This motive – thought – behavior process is fundamental to why and how we set goals and work to accomplish those goals. All stakeholders have motives and all of them will display those motives by how they approach project activities.

Three Primary Motives

Dr. David C. McClelland’s research and studies on motivation resulted in the development of a theory about the strengths of three social motives – the Need for Affiliation, the Need for Power, and the Need for Achievement. All three motives have their relevance to management, leadership, and organizational dynamics since all three contribute to an organization’s effectiveness and influence behavior.

1. Need for Affiliation

Stakeholders with a high need for affiliation are moved to act because of their positive interest in and concern for others. These people are also concerned about being disliked, disapproved of, or rejected. They think about developing and maintaining relationships, being with others to enjoy their company, being separated from others, and generally view group working situations as social activities.

Stakeholders motivated by affiliation are typically very social. They will frequently be seen socializing and talking with others. When given the choice, they will choose to be with others rather than alone. They also join many social groups, clubs, and on-line networking groups. They will generally put people before tasks and will often choose to work with friends over experts. Affiliation motivated people constantly seek approval, are empathetic and caring, and often make decisions and communicate based on what others might think and feel.

2. Need for Power

Stakeholders with a high need for power are motivated by the ability to exercise control and influence. They think about taking strong and forceful action that affects others and will often give help, advice, or support (especially when it’s unsolicited). Power motivated people continually develop strategies to control people, get their opinion accepted, and shape situations.

Power motivated stakeholders tend to be active in the organization’s politics by seeking positions of leadership and networking to meet personal and organizational goals. They have also been known to seek, withhold, or use information to control others and influence specific outcomes. A common characteristic of power motivated people is that they like to collect and display objects of prestige on their “I-love-me” walls.

3. Need for Achievement

Stakeholders with a high Need for Achievement not only spend time thinking about achievement goals, but they think about how to attain goals, what obstacles or blocks might be encountered, where they can get help, and how they will feel if they succeed or fail. They have a strong desire for success and an equally strong fear of failure and are competitive and generally have an intense desire to outperform someone else, such as, performing better than their predecessors, contemporaries, or a competing organization. To them failure is never an option. They focus on meeting or surpassing a self-imposed standard of excellence and always want to do things better, faster, cheaper, more efficiently, or of a higher quality – being “good enough is not good enough.”

Achievement motivated stakeholders rely upon their entrepreneurial spirit in that they think about doing something unique or innovative. It is also helpful to remember that achievement motivated stakeholders can also become somewhat coercive and might be less willing to delegate if their fear of failure is greater than their desire for success. They set challenging, but realistic goals for themselves and others. Never satisfied with the status quo, they continuously seek performance-related feedback, whether positive or negative with the view that any feedback can be used to improve performance. They are risk takers who are not afraid to take calculated risks by analyzing and assessing problems and solutions. As a result, they tend to take the initiative, are creative, and try to learn from failures. When they do fail, they generally take personal responsibility for their actions. Also, when given a choice, achievement motivated stakeholders will choose to work with experts over friends in work-related situations.


All managers have some degree of all three social-motives. For example, a project manager who has a deliverable due wants to make sure that it is delivered on time – Achievement motive. The entire project team needs to work late to get the deliverable accomplished. The project manager has a family obligation and does not want to miss another family activity, but does not want to let down the team by leaving early – Affiliation motive. The project manager also is aware that because the team members have been working late, they might need to be pushed to stay. However if they are successful, then the project manager will look better to his/her manager and will have a better chance of getting a promotion – Power motive.

While a stakeholder’s motives to some extent are innate, they can be increased with focus and effort. Keep in mind that a person’s motives may change as he/she moves upward in the organization or to another position. As a project team member, the primary motivator is likely to become or remain a group member – a need for affiliation. As the person moves into the position of team lead, project manager, or decision maker, there tends to be more emphasis placed on the need for power (the need to influence) and achievement (need to succeed), than on the need for affiliation (need to be liked or accepted.)

Think about your organization and your stakeholders. Think about yourself and what really drives you to perform as you do. Are you motivated by the opportunity to work with other professionals, the ability to influence the organization and its output, or the desire to meet or exceed objectives with respect to task accomplishment? Successful people are never satisfied with the status quo, especially with respect to their own capabilities.

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