What Is Self-Determination Theory?

what is self-determination theory?

What are the main drivers in your life? For example, what motivates you to action at work? Do you enjoy what you do at work, and do you put in extra effort beyond the minimum required? Or do you find your job boring and it is all you can do to stay focused on job tasks? There are many theories of motivation that try to answer this question including self-determination theory. But what is self-determination theory and how does it explain our behavior?

What Is Motivation?

Motivation is the driving force behind our behavior. It is the reason that we do what we do. Motivation can mobilize our activities in three ways.

  • Direction has to do with our choice of where to invest our efforts. Do we spend the morning reading a novel or doing a workout on our Peloton bike?
  • Intensity has to do with the amount of effort we expend on the task we are doing. Do we ride our Peloton slowly or quickly?
  • Persistence is the amount of time we spend on the activity. Do we ride for 10 minutes or 2 hours?

There are two types of motivation that are important in understanding motivation. Extrinsic motivation occurs when we do something to gain reward or to avoid punishment. We work at our jobs for the pay and benefits. We wear our seatbelts to avoid injury in an accident. We might go to work even if we hate our jobs and the tasks we do. We wear our seatbelts even though not wearing them is more comfortable.

Intrinsic motivation means we engage in an activity because we enjoy it. This is the case with many leisure activities that we do just because we like them. This can also be the case with work activities that we find enjoyable. I enjoy writing blog articles because I find writing to be intrinsically motivating.

Many of the activities we perform have elements of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Most of us work because we need to pay and benefits, but we can still enjoy much of what we do at work and find at least some of our tasks intrinsically motivating.

What Is Self-Determination Theory?

The basic idea of self-determination theory is that everyone has three main needs that motivate us:

  • Autonomy is the need to control your environment. People can feel stressed when they lose control of their lives and will be motivated to assert that control. This is one reason that people will sometimes refuse to comply when someone tries to force them to do something, even if that something is in their best interest.
  • Competence is the need to accomplish meaningful things in life. People want to feel that they are good performers in at least some domains of life. No one wants to feel like a failure because they are unable to do anything well.
  • Relatedness is the need to have positive relationships with other people. This includes intimate relationships, friendships, and good working relationships.

Activities that enable us to fulfill these needs will be intrinsically motivating because they do not only provide external rewards. People will do more than just the minimum required if they are intrinsically motivated.

How Leaders Can Apply Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination theory tells organizational leaders that they should focus on meeting follower needs in order to maximize their motivation. This means focusing on the three need areas.

  • Autonomy: Empower employees by allowing them autonomy to the extent possible. This involves allowing employees to decide how, when, and where to accomplish tasks, and if possible even allow latitude about what tasks to do. Setting goals with employees and then holding people accountable for accomplishing those goals is a way to enhance motivation. A highly successful CEO told me that he discovered the best way to motivate employees was to focus on goal accomplishment and not on the steps employees took to meet goals.
  • Competence: An important motivational tool is to invest in employees to build their knowledge and skill at work. It is important to provide training, but often a better way is to provide assignments that allow employees to grow. Those assignments need to be challenging, but not beyond the capability of the employee. A series of increasingly challenging tasks can build talent while providing successes that meet competence needs.
  • Relatedness: It is important at work to create a supportive organizational climate that encourages good working relationships among employees. Building a climate of psychological safety where everyone is free to express opinions and be themselves helps people meet their relatedness needs. Leaders should provide effective support for followers that not only helps with performing job tasks, but deals with personal issues as well.

Good leadership means motivating employees by meeting their basic needs at work. The leader who can answer what is self-determination theory has a valuable tool that can enhance motivation by making work better for employees.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

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3 Replies to “What Is Self-Determination Theory?”

  1. Thanks, Paul! that’s one of my favorite theories…I use with masters students. fits well in organizations. For a good while, Deci and Ryan were not getting much traction in the IO space but, as you know, that’s changed.
    SDT is a good tool for consultants to have in their tool box.
    Thanks for posting that…such a clear, concise explanation!
    Tom Mitchell, U Baltimore

  2. Thank you Paul for giving insights into self-determination theory.. liked the intrinsic motivation part, should know and work on it.

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