A 2003 HBR article based on McClelland's theory summarized their findings in this way - "They found that managers fall into three motivational groups. Those in the first, affiliative managers, need to be liked more than they need to get things done. Their decisions are aimed at increasing their own popularity rather than promoting the goals of the organization. Managers motivated by the need to achieve—the second group—aren't worried about what people think of them. They focus on setting goals and reaching them, but they put their own achievement and recognition first. Those in the third group--institutional managers—are interested above all in power. Recognizing that you get things done inside organizations only if you can influence the people around you, they focus on building power through influence rather than through their own individual achievement. People in this third group are the most effective, and their direct reports have a greater sense of responsibility, see organizational goals more clearly, and exhibit more team spirit."
The article highlights an essential distinction on the good use of power motivation yet. "We concluded that the top manager of a company must possess a high need for power—that is, a concern for influencing people. However, this need must be disciplined and controlled so that it is directed toward the benefit of the institution as a whole and not toward the manager's personal aggrandizement. Moreover, the top manager's need for power ought to be greater than his or her need to be liked. Power without discipline is often directed toward the manager's personal aggrandizement, not toward the benefit of the institution."
Leaders who use power without discipline are frequently incapable of creating trusted relationships by showing less caring for their team members. They tend to make their personal growth and benefit the only rewarded contributions. I remember a vice-president in a large tech company who had his entire team constantly working on "reporting better results" rather than producing actual ones. His team devoted hours and hours to massaging data and finding good angles to report advances in the many KPIs, so results always looked better than they were. For many in the team concerned about creating real value, the environment was unbearable. They could only see projects stalled with a lack of decision making and proper budget allocation, low visibility and promotion across departments, low management support, and the worst of all, no reasonable criteria on performance evaluations and promotions. All we could see were not engaged managers and team members, toxic behaviors and active rumor mills, unproductive meetings, and mental health concerns—an apparent misuse of power motivation.
The California Business Coach Ed Batista notes in his 2006 article that "a high need for power doesn't necessarily translate into displays of power.
Uninhibited self-aggrandizement or abuses of authority shouldn't be mistaken for a good manager's strong need for power." He also comments that "McClellan and Burnham determined that the most effective managers were mature and disciplined, which minimized their displays of power and reinforced their focus on achieving organizational results. Mature people can be most simply described as less egotistic. Somehow their positive self-image is not at stake in their jobs. They are less defensive, more willing to seek advice from experts, and have a longer-range view. They accumulate fewer personal possessions and seem older and wiser. The best managers possess two characteristics that act as regulators- a greater emotional maturity, where there is little egotism, and a democratic coaching managerial style. If an institutional power motivation is checked by maturity, it does not lead to an aggressive, egotistic expansiveness. That means managers can control their subordinates and influence others around them without having to resort to coercion or to an authoritarian management style."
In today's reality, accelerated by the inflicted pandemic's more humane lens, managers have to adopt less egotistical instances of leadership. The internal pressures from younger talent (attracted by meaningful purpose work) and external from customers (requiring proper business conduct) impose leaders to transform themselves to their best versions and, therefore, the growing demand for coaching and mentoring from all types of professionals and officers. HR leaders and CEOs invest as never before in developing their people's soft skills and their own. Having truly collaborative and engaged teams is clearly making the difference in achieving sustainable results. It is also the only proven way to retain any company's most scarce and expensive resource: talent. Leaders who want to succeed in the next decade will have to evolve into coaching and mentoring, provide learning opportunities to their team members, promote collaboration, and honestly care for each one's health and inspiration. This change has already started. For the first time in a few decades, we have finally seen an improvement in the last Gallup's employee engagement survey - 34% of U.S. workers are engaged, tying highest in Gallup's history. And that is not a coincidence.
Technology is playing a double edge sword role in that dynamic. From one side, it has enabled employees to work remotely, sometimes distant from their colleagues. It has also helped to flat organizations, making collaborative work more required for better results. Those changes do not make the role of leaders easier. It is hard to care for their teams and be aware of each member's needs and motivational levels. There is a limit to Zoom calls and Slack chat communications before burn-out hits. Gladly, technology is also enabling new tools, some powered by AI, to augment leaders' perceptions and insights around team performance management. Those tools are necessary to empower leaders and team members to develop and keep better soft skills—an essential investment.
Time will split winners and losers in this race. It will depend only on whether you see humans as resources or understand you cannot resource humans but develop them. There will be no shortcut for leaders or talent bench outside to hire from it. It is never too late to evolve your people strategy, adopt new tools, and push managers to learn and develop new skills.