N-Ach (Need for Achievement) is a term introduced by David McClelland into the field of psychology, referring to an individual's desire for significant accomplishment, mastering of skills, control, or high standards.
N-Ach is related to the difficulty of tasks people choose to undertake. Those with low N-Ach may choose very easy tasks, in order to minimise risk of failure, or highly difficult tasks, such that a failure would not be embarrassing. Those with high N-Ach tend to choose moderately difficult tasks, feeling that they are challenging, but within reach.
People high in N-Ach are characterised by a tendency to seek challenges and a high degree of independence. Their most satisfying reward is the recognition of their achievements. Sources of high N-Ach include:
The procedure in McClelland's initial investigation was to arouse in the test audience a concern with their achievement. A control group was used in which arousal was omitted. In the course of this experiment, McClelland discovered through analyzing the stories on the TAT that initial arousal was not necessary. Instead, members of the control group — individuals who had had no prior arousal — demonstrated significant differences in their stories, some writing stories with a high achievement content and some submitting stories with a low achievement content. Using results based on the Thematic Apperception Test, McClelland demonstrated that individuals in a society can be grouped into high achievers and low achievers based on their scores on what he called "N-Ach" .
McClelland and his associates have since extended their work in fantasy analysis to include different age groups, occupational groups, and nationalities in their investigations of the strength of need for achievement. These investigations have indicated that the N-Ach score increases with a rise in occupational level. Invariably, businessmen, managers, and entrepreneurs are high scorers. Other investigations into the characteristics of the high achievers have revealed that accomplishment on the job represents an end in itself; monetary rewards serve as an index of this accomplishment. In addition, these other studies found that the high achievers, though identified as managers, businessmen, and entrepreneurs, are not gamblers. They will accept risk only to the degree they believe their personal contributions will make a difference in the final outcome .
These explorations into the achievement motive seem to turn naturally into the investigation of national differences based on Max Weber's thesis that the industrialization and economic development of the Western nations were related to the Protestant ethic and its corresponding values supporting work and achievement. McClelland and his associates have satisfied themselves that such a relationship, viewed historically through an index of national power consumption, indeed exists. Differences related to individual, as well as to national, accomplishments depend on the presence or absence of an achievement motive in addition to economic resources or the infusion of financial assistance. High achievers can be viewed as satisfying a need for self-actualization through accomplishments in their job assignments as a result of their particular knowledge, their particular experiences, and the particular environments in which they have lived .
The techniques McClelland and his collaborators developed to measure N-Ach, N-Affil and N-Pow (see McClelland et al, 1958) can be viewed as a radical break with the dominant psychometric tradition. However, it should be recognised that McClellend's thinking was strongly influenced by the pioneering work of Henry Murray, both in terms of Murray's model of human needs and motivational processes (1938) and his work with the OSS during World War Two. It was during this period that Murray introduced the idea of "situation tests" and multi-rater / multi-method assessments. It was Murray who first identified the significance of Need for Achievement, Power and Affiliation and placed these in the context of an integrated motivational model.
Whilst trait-based personality theory assume that high-level competencies like initiative, creativity, and leadership can be assessed using “internally consistent” measures (see psychometrics), the McClelland measures recognize that such competencies are difficult and demanding activities which will neither be developed nor displayed unless people are undertaking activities they care about (ie are strongly motivated to undertake). Furthermore, it is the cumulative number of independent, but cumulative and substitutable, components of competence they bring to bear while seeking to carry out these activities that will determine their success. Accordingly, the N-Ach, N-Aff and N-Pow scoring systems simply count how many components of competence people bring to bear whilst carrying out activities they have a strong personal inclination (or motivation) to undertake.
An important corollary is that there is no point in trying to assess people’s abilities without first finding out what they care about. So one cannot (as some psychometricians try to do) assess such things as “creativity” in any general sense. One has always to ask “creativity in relation to what?” So McClelland’s measures, originally presented as means of assessing “personality”, are best understood as means of measuring competence in ways which break radically with traditional psychometric approaches. (See Raven (2001) for a fuller discussion).