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Self-Determination Theory in the Workplace

Existing theory and research on employee motivation identify needs as innate aspects of individuals that drive behavior in the workplace. These needs include, among others:

  • Competence – An individual’s desire to be respected at work for the skills they possess and the work they produce.

  • Relatedness – The desire to interact within and be psychologically connected to a work group and/or a larger organizational unit.

  • Autonomy – The desire to be in control of one’s work schedule and to determine how one’s work gets done.

Rather than managers growing frustrated with a lack of engagement and motivation amongst their employees, Self Determination Theory (SDT) suggests that the workplace offers many opportunities to enhance engagement and performance that do not depend on extrinsic motivators, such as pay raises and promotions.

Most managers just haven’t tapped into that potential, yet.

The validated insights identified by SDT psychologists have existed for years and were recently brought into mainstream corporate America by authors and speakers such as Daniel Pink.

SDT theory suggests that simple interventions that target the three aforementioned needs of employees can powerfully transform stagnant organizations into thriving work environments in which employees are intrinsically motivated to perform their jobs roles.

Simple bimonthly recognition ceremonies, for example, can go a long way in satisfying individuals’ need for competence, while flexible and compressed work schedules can provide individuals with the sense of autonomy they inherently desire. Organizing informal “happy hours," encouraging greater teamwork, and communicating a common mission to employees further serves to fulfill individuals’ need for relatedness at work.

By implementing simple interventions that tap into these universal needs of employees, organizations can boost engagement and performance levels and improve retention.


Christian Thoroughgood, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about him here!

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