Motivation theory and vocational choice

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Motivation theories attempt to provide an understanding of how different internal processes affect human behaviour. Several theories of motivation have been proposed, the following two theories of motivation are the most applicable to people's behaviours at work and in particular, the individual drivers that influence career choice.

Self-determination theory[edit]

The research of Ryan and Deci (2008) lead to the development of self-determination theory (SDT). The theory focuses on the degree to which an individual's behaviour is self-motivated and self-determined. According to SDT, there are three innate psychological needs that, when satisfied, increase motivation and promote well-being. These universal needs are: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When people are in an environment that supports and nurtures their psychological needs, this promotes positive emotions, optimal experience and healthy development. When these needs are thwarted, it leads to reduced productivity and satisfaction (Ryan & Deci, 2008).

Figure 1. The three psychological needs that, when satisfied, increase motivation according to self-determination theory.

Autonomy refers to the need to experience self-direction and choice in the initiation and regulation of ones' behavior (Reeve, 2015). For example, individuals who select a career out of personal choice and preference, as opposed to externally motivated factors such as salary or to satisfy the wishes of someone else, are satisfying their need for autonomy.

Competence refers to the need for individual's to feel effective in their interactions with the environment (Reeve, 2015). Individuals are more likely to experience a sense of competence when undertaking work activities that are matched to their interests, skills and abilities. Therefore, they will be motivated to seek out a career that provides the greatest opportunity for need satisfaction, leading to increased job satisfaction and well-being.

Relatedness refers to the individual's need to establish close emotional bonds and attachments with other people (Reeve, 2015). Workers who feel supported by, and connected to, others when carrying out work activities are fulfilling their need for relatedness. By working in an environment surrounded by like-minded people, as proposed by Holland's model, individuals are provided opportunity for positive interactions with others.

McClelland's acquired needs theory[edit]

McClelland proposed that one’s needs are acquired over time as a result of their experiences.  According to McClelland's acquired needs theory, people are motivated by three basic needs: the need for achievement, the need for affiliation, and the need for power (McClelland & Winter, 1969). Each person has a tendency to be motivated by one of these needs more so than the other two. Consequently a person’s behaviour and performance at work is strongly influenced by the most meaningful of the three needs. Further, the decision of which particular type of career to pursue is motivated by their strongest need. Acquired or social needs, differ from the innate psychological needs discussed above in SDT, in that they arise from our unique personal experiences and therefore vary considerably form one person to the next (Reeve, 2015).

  • Need for achievement can be defined as the desire to show personal competence and do well relative to a standard of excellence.
  • Need for affiliation can be defined as the desire to form relationships and be social.
  • Need for power can be can be defined as the desire to influence and control others.
Figure 2. A person with a strong need for achievement experiences enjoyment while engaging in a challenging task and seeks out opportunities to display personal competence.


A person with a strong need for achievement experiences strong interest, enthusiasm, joy, and pride while engaging in a challenging task. Whereas a person with little or no need for achievement typically experiences anxiety, shame, and embarrassment when faced with challenging tasks (Reeve, 2015). High-need achievers are more likely to choose jobs that provide them with moderately difficult tasks, competition and moderate risk-taking (e.g. investing in stocks and entrepreneurship) (McClelland, 1985) to enable demonstration of one's competence. Any occupation that offers challenge, independent work, personal responsibility, and rapid performance feedback is likely to appeal to high-need achievers (McClelland, 1961). Differences in achievement motivation can be measured using the Big Five personality inventory as a sub-facet of Conscientiousness (Costa & McCrae, 1992).


Individuals with a strong need for affiliation are likely to seek out opportunities to please others, gain their approval, and be involved in warm and secure relationships (Reeve, 2015) (including with colleagues). They prefer careers that involve positive relationships and support for others (helping professions such as nursing, education, and social work) (Sid & Lindgren, 1981). Individuals also benefit from working in environments that provide social acceptance, approval, reassurance and social interaction (McKeachie, Lin, Milholland, & Isaacson, 1966). High-affiliation-need individuals work best in a group environment rather than individually, so are unlikely to pursue a solo career. They avoid conflict and don't like risk or uncertainty (Reeve, 2015) and as such, are unlikely to pursue leadership positions or high-risk jobs.


People high in the need for power desire to have impact, control or influence over others (Winter, 1988). A person's need for power can be categorised as one of two types - personal or institutional power. Personal power relates to the desire to control and direct others, whereas, social power, relates to the desire to organise the efforts of others for the greater good (Winter, 1988). People with high personal power motivation often satisfy this motivational need through leadership roles or by pursuing a career as a business executive, as this role will result in legitimate interpersonal power over others. Other preferred professions that satisfy this need include judge, CEO, or entrepreneur (Reeve, 2015). Helping behaviour has been conceptualised as a socially acceptable expression of power motivation (Jenkins, 1987), in that one is able to exert influence on another person by, for example, offering advice or taking charge. This is a form of social power. People high in power motivation have been found to be strongly represented in many of the professions known as "helping professions" such as teacher, clergy, and psychologist (Winter, 1996). Such professions provide the opportunity for the occupant to experience high levels of autonomy and influence others. These findings were replicated by Jenkins (1994) in a longitudinal study involving 118 college seniors, who found that the need for power was linked to choice and attainment of power-relevant careers including teaching, psychotherapy, journalism, and business management. Thus, choice of occupation can provide a means for satisfying need strivings.

Leadership motive[edit]

A special variant of the need for power is the leadership motive pattern. It is characterised by a high need for power, low need for affiliation, and high self-control (McClelland, 1975). An individual high in leadership motive desires to exercise influence, is not concerned with being liked, and has strong self-discipline, such as a military commander (Reeve, 2015). These characteristics generally result in effective leaders and managers because they are productive, successful, and viewed positively by employees (McClelland, 1975). The combination of power and control fosters charismatic leadership and high morale among followers (Winter, 2010).

Figure 7 - Sir Richard Branson harboured a desire to become an entrepreneur from a young age and started his first business venture at the age of sixteen.

Focus Box: Entrepreneurship[edit]

Why do some people chose to work outside well-defined careers? Entrepreneurship refers to people's ability and motivation to engage in innovative business ventures. Recent figures suggest that up to 40% of people choose to work for themselves at some point in their lives, and some forever (Shane, 2010).

Richard Branson is an English business magnate, investor, and philanthropist. He is best known as the founder of Virgin Group, which comprises more than 400 companies. He is also known for his risky business ventures, highly profitable businesses and world record attempts. Branson's achievements were recognised in 2000 when he was knighted for ''services to entrepreneurship".

"I may be a businessman, in that I set up and run companies for profit, but, when I try to plan ahead and dream up new companies, I'm an idealist."

(Branson, 2007, p. 400).

See also[edit]

Vocational motivation and personality


Branson, R. (2007). Losing My Virginity: Richard Branson, The Autobiography. Virgin Books. London

Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Four ways five factors are basic. Personality and individual differences, 13, 653-665.

Jenkins, S. R. (1994). Need for power and women's careers over 14 years: Structural power, job satisfaction, and motive change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 155.

McClelland, D. C. (1961). The achieving society. New York: Van Nostrand.

McClelland, D. C., & Winter, D. (1969). Motivating economic achievement. New York: Free Press.

McClelland, D. C. (1985). How motives, skills, and values determine what people do. American psychologist, 40, 812.

McKeachie, W. J., Lin, Y. G., Milholland, J., & Isaacson, R. (1966). Student affiliation motives, teacher warmth, and academic achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 457.

Reeve, J. (2015). Understanding motivation and emotion (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78. doi: 10.1037110003-066X.55.1.68

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2008). Self-determination theory and the role of basic psychological needs in personality and the organization of behavior. In O. P. John, R. W. Robbins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research (pp. 654-678). New York: The Guilford Press.

Sid, A. K. W., & Lindgren, H. C. (1981). Sex differences in achievement and affiliation motivation among undergraduates majoring in different academic fields. Psychological Reports, 48, 539-542.

Winter, D. G. (1988). The power motive in women—and men. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 510-519.

Winter, D. G. (1996). Personality: Analysis and interpretation of lives. McGraw-Hill.

Winter, D. G. (2010). Why achievement motivation predicts success in business but failure in politics: The importance of personal control. Journal of Personality, 78, 1637-1668.