Friday, June 08, 2007

The Need to Achieve

David C. McClelland, of Harvard University, did a lab experiment where he had people throw a ring over a peg from any distance that they wanted. Most of the people started very close to the peg and then gradually worked their way back, a very smart yet very safe approach to the task. Then there were those that carefully measured the distance where they believed they would achieve mastery, a little risky but potentially an achievable task. Finally there were those that tried to make the toss from very far away, a dangerous throw where chance determines the success.

So what do we learn from such a simple study? Basically everything you need to know about achievement and an individual.

We all have a need to achieve, but feed this need differently. There is a group of people who play it safe, never take a risk, therefore protecting themselves from ever making a big mistake. These people make very low risk decisions therefore receive very low rewards. The polar opposite of this is the group of people who constantly take high risks where they have little control over the outcome. When these people succeed they get great accolades for pulling off the impossible, yet when they fail they can easily brush it off saying that the probability was zero to begin with. These people take high risks, have great (although seldom) rewards, and have little accountability for when things go wrong.

The group that interests me the most is the group in the middle, the group that basically keeps everything moving while the safe people play it safe and the high risk people continue their gambling ways. The group in the middle is the highest achievers because they have the greatest internal motivation, which means that they are driven by the journey, not by the outcome of the project. Their need to achieve doesn’t come out of fear of making mistakes or accolades for landing one huge deal, their need to achieve comes from challenging themselves to improve. This group of people knows that through realistic challenges, they will personally have a greater impact on the outcome of whatever it is they are trying to achieve because they constantly are thinking of ways to get better.

So for all of you that think it is boring being in the middle, that you need to be noticed to get ahead, or that by going unnoticed you can just cruise your way through life, think again. What David McClelland also found was that the people in the middle (achievement motivated people as he calls them) tend to get more raises and are promoted faster, companies with more of these people tend to grow faster and are more profitable, and these types of people are the backbone of most organizations.

Achievement is not a mystery, it is a calculated set of events for which you are in control and accountable. Yes there is risk involved. However, taking calculated yet challenging risks without fear will allow you to achieve much more than it will allow you to fail.

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