I was watching the latest test match between South Africa and Australia yesterday when a feeling of déjà vu came over me. It took a little while to work out what it was I was feeling.

What I was seeing was clear. After outplaying Australia quite comprehensively for six weeks or so, beating Australia in Australia for the first time, South Africa were losing just as comprehensively some four weeks later over two matches. South African players who seemed impregnable were totally fallible and were being dominated for large parts of the two matches played to date.

The feeling of déjà vu was the result of another set of cricket matches. The England team, after beating Australia in England in a very hard fought series, with a claim to therefore be heading towards Australia’s number one team status, proceeded to lose matches they “should” have won and were walloped when they next played Australia some eighteen months later.

The feeling did not come from the results of the matches or the form of players; it came from their body language. In both cases, the players’ body language told me that they had climbed their Everest. In England’s case it was winning The Ashes back. In South Africa’s case it was winning in Australia for the first time. Gone was the look of determination in the eye. Gone was the concentration on execution. In their place was a slightly more casual air, as if turning up and “playing well” was going to be enough. It was only a slight change, but a very important change.

Contrast them with the Australian’s who under John Buchanan’s coaching for many years had the need for personal achievement and personal mastery as goals drilled into them rather than the achievement of the result of a game. Although Buchanan was not coaching them any more the ethos still shone through.

What the Australians had was still a strong need for achievement. The South Africans and the English before them had climbed their respective Everest and lacked the extreme drive from their personal and team need for achievement.

McClelland, in his book The Achieving Society (1961), The Free Press, described three types of motivational need:

  • Achievement motivation
  • Authority/power motivation
  • Affiliate motivation

Understanding McClelland’s Needs-Based Motivational Model helps me understand why sporting teams, which do not plan for what happens after a single, result-oriented goal is achieved, underachieve over extended periods of time.

Moreover, it helps me understand what leaders need to do to keep high performing teams going. The three needs described by McClelland, were characterised as follows.

Achievement Motivation

People exhibiting achievement as their dominant motivation force, constantly set and reset challenging but achievable goals. They are demanding of their people, sometimes creating difficulties for their subordinates who are less goal-oriented and less driven to succeed. They need strong feedback loops to determine if they are succeeding as positive feedback completes their sense of achievement. They do not seek or value feedback about their personal traits, but the results they get.

In general, leaders with a strong achievement motivation:

  • Take responsibility for results of behaviour
  • Take calculated risks
  • Set moderate achievement goals
  • Prefer to set performance standards for themselves
  • Prefer non-routine tasks to routine assignments
  • Welcome feedback about how well they are doing

Achievement motivated people often make the best leaders as they inspire people with their vision and determination.

Authority or Power Motivation

These people need one of two types of power to feel like they are succeeding.

  • Dominance, physical aggression, exploitation
  • Persuasion and interpersonal influence
    • View situations from a win-lose perspective
    • Must win and the other party must lose
    • Tries to arouse confidence in those he or she wants to influence
    • Clarifies team goals and persuades members to achieve those goals
    • Emphasizes team members’ ability to reach goals

The first type make poor leaders, the second type, if they have high achievement motivation make very good leaders.

Affiliation Motivation

People who have a strong need for affiliation need to be liked and popular. They are held in high regard by many but do not often achieve great results. Their objectivity becomes compromised by the need to be liked. The strongest and most effective leaders have a high need for achievement and a need to persuade or influence coupled with a slight, but not zero, need for affiliation to counter the capacity to drive for the achievement at the expense of team members.

What does the theory tell us about how to maintain high performing teams?

Select an achievement motivated leader

An achievement motivated leader without the affiliation need is better than a leader with a high affiliation need and low achievement need. You can grow and coach and help an achievement oriented leader to be more considerate of their team more easily than you can teach an affiliation driven leader to be more concerned and consistent in their drive for achieving a goal.

Create and socialise team goals which are challenging yet achievable

Team goals which stretch the ability of the team must be set and then socialised. The usual rules of communication apply in that we must communicate the goals in different ways through different mediums to ensure all of our intended recipients comprehend the goal through their preferred communication style.

Create and socialise personal goals which are challenging yet achievable

Similar stretch goals must be set for individuals. Often this will be goals about personal skills, knowledge or behaviour that if achieved will contribute to the ease of achievement of the team goals. In a sporting context, this might mean learning to throw or kick with the left side of your body as well as you do your right. In a business context this might mean mastering a particular skill such as negotiating or handling conflict or it may mean removing a knowledge deficit such as six sigma techniques.

Leaders who concentrate only on outcome goals and are unable to influence team members to take up individual goals miss the opportunity to grow and motivate individuals in the team.

Reset the team and personal goals

Having only one outcome based goal with which the team is truly engaged is fraught with the risk that having reached their Everest, the team performance will decline. Not because of a skill or knowledge decline, but because of a behavioural change triggered imperceptibly by a decline in achievement motivation.

Reward achievement with recognition and money

Recognition feeds the achievement motivated members of the team. Cash feeds the need of those team members driven by more basic needs. It also feeds the need of achievement oriented people as being a benchmark of success. Money as a feedback measure is more important to them than the money itself.

Renew the team

Despite your best efforts, teams and individuals will reach their Everest sometimes without knowing it and their performance will slide. Bring in new blood that still has that need for achievement.

The major external difference with the Australian cricket team in their turnarounds in performance that started me thinking about the impact of people and teams reaching their Everest was the infusion of new blood, introducing three debutants into the team.

The “old-blood” need not whither away in some corner. It is time for their renewal too. It is their time to set some new goals in a new context. It is time for them to set a new Everest.