Date: June, 2021 | Autho(s): Dorette Lochner & Birgit Preuss-Scheuerle

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Power motivation and leadership in modern organisations

How motivational psychology can help develop leaders


As the world changes, organisations must constantly adapt their structures to new realities. One way to address this situation is by decentralising responsibility and making work processes more agile, an approach that inevitably involves breaking down hierarchies. This raises the question of whether modern organisations even need leadership and leaders any more. In this article, we examine this question not from the perspective of organisational science, but from that of motivational psychology.

The desire to lead is a human need

Exercising leadership is a basic human motive. Harvard psychologist David McClelland and subsequent motivation scholars typically identify at least three basic motivating forces in addition to our biological needs: the need for power, the need for achievement and the need for affiliation.

All three are intrinsic, which means they motivate us without external reinforcement or reward. Yet the degree to which these motivating forces dominate our behaviour differs from one individual to the next. Each of us is driven by our own combination of motivators. In one individual, all three of these intrinsic human motives may be strongly expressed; in another, none of the motivators may be dominant.

While the achievement motive focuses on a particular thing that we wish to accomplish, the power and affiliation motives are focused on people:

  • The achievement motive is the desire to achieve something concrete in your work; to do things well, and to develop your own skills.
  • The power motive is the desire to influence others, to exercise control, and to be respected within a social group.
  • The affiliation motive is the need to establish and maintain positive relationships with our fellow human beings and to be liked by others.

Studies in social psychology and social biology have shown that the display and acceptance of power are also enacted in randomly mixed groups, even where there is no objective reason for this (e.g. Tiedens & Fragale, 2003). This phenomenon – often referred to as dominance complementarity – shows that there are also plenty of people who prefer to follow a leader rather than making decisions and setting a course themselves.

The authoritative work “Motivation and Action” includes a chapter on power motivation by Schmalt and Heckhausen (2018) in which they draw the following conclusion: “Power and dominance – and their inequitable distribution among individuals, groups, and states – are among the universals of human social life. The motives behind this behaviour seem to have a genetic basis in humans, and very probably in nonhuman primates.”

The power motive is often seen as taboo

The need for affiliation – that is, the need to have interpersonal and social relationships – is widely acknowledged and accepted within organisations. It is symbolised by coffee time in the breakroom, which is a vital component of organisations everywhere. Even with the recent boom in virtual collaboration, companies are still eager to find ways of satisfying their employees’ need for bonding and relationships. Solutions include online coffee meet-ups and virtual birthday celebrations – yet the blunt reality is that indulging social motives within an organisation can be tremendously time-consuming. Team members who do not have a strong affiliation motive may even take a negative view of these social events, though they may well be reprimanded if they choose to voice their criticism.

The achievement motive is also generally accepted, and is only regarded as a stress factor by those who are less motivated. Many organisations acknowledge this motive through the use of performance appraisals and bonuses.

Yet the situation is very different in the case of the need for power. This motive typically has a somewhat dubious reputation in organisational cultures and is only accepted when exercised in the service of the common good. Accordingly, team members motivated by power are likely to conceal their true motive and go “undercover” by pretending to have different motives for their actions. Team members motivated by the need for achievement and affiliation are less likely to do this.

While it’s certainly true that power motivation in the wrong setting can lead to unnecessary friction and create an aggravating, unproductive environment, it’s equally the case that a willingness to assume responsibility and motivate others can be vital to an organisation’s survival at a time of transformation. Individuals with high self-efficacy expectations are particularly likely to exhibit successful leadership behaviour.

All this raises the question of how organisations can harness the positive aspects of the power motive for the benefit of all.

A psychological perspective on the power motive

Most people endeavour to satisfy their intrinsic needs through their work. Consequently, team members with a strong power motive seek to gain influence and expand their sphere of influence even in situations where responsibilities have already been clearly allocated. They act autonomously wherever they can and constantly try to renegotiate their boundaries – and whenever a vacuum of responsibility emerges, they endeavour to fill it. Such behaviour only becomes harmful to the organisation if it is also motivated by fear, namely the fear of losing power and control in an unmanageable situation.

Since it is not possible to eliminate the power motive, the most sensible solution is to cultivate this form of behaviour in a way that benefits the organisation as a whole. In motivational psychology, this is referred to as a socialised power motive, a term that denotes the highest level of maturity in power motive development. Power-motivated individuals who have reached this level of emotional maturity are confident in themselves and in their ability to lead. They are prepared to faithfully apply their influence to help the organisation achieve its goals and benefit everyone around them. In contrast, power-motivated individuals who have not reached this level of maturity are more likely to use their influence to achieve their own goals and to gratify their ego.

The development and socialisation process of the power motive may occur naturally over a person’s lifetime, for example when older siblings learn to take a certain amount of responsibility for younger ones, or when young people take on minor leadership roles in clubs or associations and learn to put themselves at the service of an organisation’s goals. This can be encouraged through guiding feedback from parents, supervisors or peers, as well as by affirmation for their position and the prospect of assuming greater responsibility in the future. So what does this mean for organisations?

The need for power and the desire to lead can be actively socialised

Obviously, this process of socialisation does not always evolve by itself into a fully-fledged state of mature self-confidence. It is therefore advisable for organisations to create suitable frameworks that enable people to pursue their motives in a way that serves common goals.
Comprehensive research by Furtner, M.R. (2012) and Emmersberger, A. (2013) has shown that this process of socialisation can be fostered through appropriate leadership training.

Individuals with a socialised power motive are particularly well-suited to performing leadership tasks, at least in organisations where such tasks still exist and have not been prematurely eliminated. Just like any other aspect of diversity, each organisation is obliged to take these different motives into account in their organisational structure and qualifications:

  • Achievement-motivated individuals need an environment that offers challenging tasks, clear goals and differentiated performance feedback that shows an appreciation of the value they offer to the organisation. Without this, they soon get bored or become dissatisfied.

  • Affiliation-motivated individuals need positive relationships and plenty of scope to nourish these relationships. Otherwise they are likely to feel alienated and unwelcome in their workplace.

  • Power-motivated individuals need an acknowledged sphere of responsibility and visibility. Otherwise they will become frustrated and aggressive.

Since each individual’s motivation profile has a significant influence on their choice of education and occupation, it can also be applied in employee selection, since people tend to look for a job that promises the right framework conditions. For example, typical IT professions such as software and hardware development, artificial intelligence and virtual reality tend to attract more achievement-motivated individuals, in other words people who enjoy puzzling out and solving detailed, logical tasks.

A power-motivated individual is therefore less likely to find computer science appealing. It seems reasonable to surmise that a relatively low level of power motivation among computer scientists could be one of the key reasons why the rules of agile working and self-organised collaboration operate comparatively smoothly in the world of IT. In a 2008 study, Engeser, S. et al. conclude that: “ is nevertheless important to note that those individuals who have a lower need for power tend to prefer computer science, while sociable individuals are less likely to favour it.” Thus, from a psychological perspective, experiences gained from teams of software developers cannot simply be transferred one-to-one to other areas of activity.

As far back as 1973, Winter’s studies in motivational psychology demonstrated that teachers, clerics, journalists and psychologists are more highly power motivated than professions such as administrators, doctors and lawyers. The former are regarded as “manipulative” professions that aim to educate, change and influence others. Power-motivated individuals are also found in the caring professions, politics and management. This makes self-organisation and agreement among equals more difficult – and it makes a lack of leadership more problematic.

If we also take into account that some people like to follow and be led, this should prompt us to take a critical view of any demands for the radical abolition of leadership, even at lower or middle levels. If an organisation wishes to foster and empower commitment and achievement, it must offer an organisational structure that encompasses both leadership and decision-making on the one hand and the ability to classify oneself as a “follower” on the other. There are plenty of organisations currently undergoing transformation that would do well to pay more attention to these aspects before their expectations of what agility can offer go up in smoke.


Please get in touch with us if you would like to tackle these concepts in more depth in your leadership and organisational development.