Achievement Motivation: The Dollars-and-Cents (and Yen, Marks, Dinars…) Competency That Bridges All Cultures

What hiring choices would a business owner make if s/he could predict the dollar value of a potential employee’s contribution? Say you’re hiring a new sales account representative. Given a choice between one who’ll bring in ten times the cost of his or her salary and benefits or one who will earn 88 times his or her cost, which one would you want to hire?

The best employees may perform 600% better than average, according to Lyle Spencer of Hay McBer, a Boston consulting firm. And he has good news for managers: it is possible both to predict and-perhaps even more importantly-to train for extreme success.

Dr. Spencer’s address to the International Family Business Program Association conference in Northampton (hosted by the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley), July 10, 1997 held his audience riveted. Cognitive knowledge and skills, he says, are only the tip of the iceberg, though employers often concentrate on them. But the other 90% of the iceberg, the invisible part, is made up of four areas: cognition is one, but motivation, perception, and regulatory functions (such as self-confidence and aspiration) are just as, if not more, important.

All of these factors can be broken down into a variety of specific competencies. For instance, achievement motivation includes

  • Goal-setting against specific, measurable targets
  • Taking responsibility for one’s own fate (and striving to do better)
  • Improvement and innovation, always trying to boost efficiency
  • Letting your enthusiasm motivate others

Among achievers, there are many levels. When faced with change, some employees may resist, actively or passively, or accept the change without interest Others will want to take the responsibility, or even grapple with the ideas before being asked. Then there are the change instigators: the discoverer/advocate, who brings something new to the organization; the inventor, who changes an industry; and finally, the brilliant creators who bring something new to the world-those are the ones who win Nobel prizes. Employers have a choice as to where on this ladder they’d like to find their employees, and can create a climate that rewards innovation.

Like other competencies-and despite Freud’s opinion to the contrary-achievement motivation can be measured and taught. David McClelland’s 1979 study, “The Impact of Achievement Motivation training on Small Business,” identified 12 specific steps in teaching this material.

Spencer’s own firm, Hay McBer, looked at government- and NGO-funded projects teaching achievement motivation in 55 countries. The results? 32% more jobs, 100% more invested capital. And it wasn’t a matter of a few succeeding by exploiting the many; rather, the entire pie got bigger-new resources were developed. Lech Walesa was a graduate of one of these programs-and his Solidarity movement took power in Poland.

One of the wonderful things, from a government standpoint, is that these trainings pay for themselves many times over. In one controlled study of a $287,500 training program for 100 executives, those who went through the training created enough extra wealth to pay $362,300 back in new taxes after one year, and nearly twice that the second year, for a total of $1,067,300 in taxes over two years. This worked out to an ROI of 271%, a payback period of less than 10 months, and a net profit of $779,800. Not bad!

An interesting factor is the predictability of achievement motivation throughout an entire society. Another of McClelland’s studies looked at economic growth in 22 societies from 900 BC to the present-looking especially at England, Spain, and Italy, all of which have risen and fallen many times. Historically, when politicians’ speeches and creative artists (such as writers and song lyricists) exhort their followers to achieve, the society as a whole lurches forward about 50 years later. In our modern, more technological world, the gap is closing; it only takes about 10 years for the society to reflect its most forward thinkers. In spite of the rapid response time, however, the U.S. seems to be losing its achievement motivation.

For managers, Spencer has one final piece of advice: “If a candidate can tell three stories with quantitative achievement-hire them!