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Implications of the Self Determination Theory in the workplace

Having talked (albeit rather briefly, considering the extensive literature and research on the subject) about the Self Determination Theory, it’s only logical to have a look at the way this theory can have a positive impact in organizations throughout the world. HR specialists are continuously facing the challenge of engaging and retaining talented employees. The old methods of reward and punishment (the proverbial carrot dangled in front of the worker or the stick hovering behind them) have long proved inefficient if not downright disastrous.

Starting with the findings of researchers Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan’s in the 1970s and 1980s, self determination as a general concept has expanded from the realm of government paperwork and historical stories about the Founding Fathers into the field of psychology where autonomous motivation is seen as the key to reaching goals.

With newer generations proving to be completely different and increasingly harder to manage as a demographic than their predecessors, it’s crucial for organizations to tap into the potential of harnessing self-directed motivation.

The makings of autonomous motivation

Autonomous motivation is not coming solely from internal sources. Motivation from extrinsic sources is also included as long the individual finds that an activity or an objective is in alignment with their own core values and sense of self.

Controlled motivation is comprised of external regulation, a type of motivation in which the individual’s behavior is directed by external rewards and punishment (the carrot), while introjected regulation, or motivation that comes from some partially internalized values and motives such as getting superior or peer approval, avoiding shame or feeling good about oneself (protecting the ego).

These two types of motivation are obviously not exactly drivers of any feeling of long lasting accomplishment or well-being. However, when an individual is driven by autonomous motivation instead of controlled motivation they feels in control of his own choices rather than pressured to behave in a certain way.

The checklist for a self-determined individual is somebody who:

  • Believes to be in control of one’s own life;
  • Takes responsibility for one’s own behavior (taking credit and blame when it is the case for either of them);
  • Is self-motivated instead of driven by external sources or standards;
  • Acts solely based on internal values and personal goals.

Self Determination Theory in the workplace

All the research done on the subject of the Self Determination Theory has brought to the surface some interesting facts concerning work motivation. Its focus was to demonstrate the superiority of autonomous vs controlled motivation and the fact that more effort should be put into finding and employing the right motivators rather than stacking up on all kinds of different techniques, incentives or pressure mechanisms.

Although the overall amount of motivation given to employees is certainly a factor itself, it’s important to mind the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators; for example, research has confirmed that the Self Determination Theory is correct in its assumption that extrinsic rewards bring about reduced intrinsic motivation.

Furthermore, a manager’s autonomy support leads to greater levels of need satisfaction for their subordinates, which in turn boosts job satisfaction, leads to better performance evaluations, grit and easier acceptance of organizational change. There is also a clear link between managerial autonomy and subordinate autonomy, performance, and organizational commitment.

Motivating employees the right way

There are some very important applications of the Self Determination Theory in the workplace:

  • Extrinsic rewards should by no means disappear altogether but caution is advised upon choosing what they should be and how many or how often they should be awarded. Too few can lead to employees feeling that they are under appreciated or even unfairly treated and compensated for their efforts. Too many, however, can inhibit intrinsic motivation and thus stand in the way of employee well-being.
  • Managers should do their best to support their subordinates’ need for satisfaction and especially for autonomy. Doing so can lead to happier and more competent employees as well as lower turnover rates and improved business results. Empowering employees is also a great way to encourage innovation.
  • When leaders (both formal and informal) are themselves high in autonomy, their team members are likely to be high in autonomy as well, leading to better performance and higher organizational commitment. Leading by example is still the most powerful way and personal stories have a fantastic inspirational quality.
  • In terms of goal setting, managers should encourage employees to set their own, autonomously designed and regulated objectives. These are most motivating and thus more likely to lead to success.


As the main researchers note, the „primary concern throughout this program of research has been the well-being of individuals, whether they are students in classrooms, patients in clinics, athletes on the playing field, or employees in the workplace.” The findings clearly show that the natural need of individuals to be self-directed and autonomous has to be properly addressed and fulfilled in order to ensure best performance and optimal results.

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