Self-Determination Theory

Enhancing Self-Motivation by Meeting Basic Needs

Self-Determination Theory - Enhancing Motivation by Meeting Basic Needs

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Enhance your motivation with Self-Determination Theory.

Think about how motivated you've felt at various times over the last few years. At some points, your motivation was high – you felt engaged, energized, and filled with purpose. At other points, you probably felt listless, disengaged, or apathetic, and it may have been a real struggle to keep things moving forward.

Many of us recognize instinctively that motivation comes and goes. But what causes these highs and lows? Why are some people consistently engaged and motivated, while others feel demoralized and powerless? And why can't we be motivated and engaged all of the time, so that we can consistently produce our best work?

These are just some of the questions that Self-Determination Theory addresses. In this article, we'll look at how you can use it to increase your motivation and improve your job satisfaction.

What Is Self-Determination Theory?

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, psychologists at the University of Rochester, published their Self-Determination Theory in the January 2000 issue of the journal American Psychologist. It looks at why some people are highly motivated and engaged, while others feel apathetic and alienated.

The theory states that human beings naturally strive for a state of high motivation and engagement. Put simply, it's in our nature to pursue growth and well-being.

Ryan and Deci identified three universal psychological needs that motivate us to behave in a positive way. These are the needs for:

  1. Competence.
  2. Relatedness.
  3. Autonomy.

When you satisfy these needs, your self-motivation grows and your well-being increases. You feel more curious, creative, passionate, and excited about what you're doing. All of this leads to improved performance and a greater sense of purpose in your life.

When you are not meeting some of these needs, your motivation and well-being can plummet, and it can be a struggle to keep up with your tasks.

How to Apply Self-Determination Theory

The biggest advantage of Self-Determination Theory is the awareness that it provides. Once you realize how important competence, relatedness, and autonomy are to motivation and performance, you can take steps to ensure that your needs are being met.

Let's look at each of the three needs in greater detail, and discuss what you can do to incorporate more of each into your life.

1. Competence

No matter what you do, you have an innate desire to do it well. Essentially, this is what the need for competency is all about: you want to master the knowledge and the skills that you need to succeed. After all, it feels good to do great work and be an expert!

To satisfy your need for competency, take full responsibility for your self-growth and development. Start by thinking about your strengths and weaknesses. Conduct a Personal SWOT Analysis, and identify any skills or knowledge gaps that you have.

Next, look at your career goals. Where do you want to be in one year, five years or ten years? What knowledge or skills do you need to get there? Write down the learning goals that you'll need to set and achieve to get to where you want to be.

If you feel that you're too busy to build expertise, keep in mind that there are plenty of ways to find time for professional development. Use your lunch breaks to learn something new, attend online training classes in the evening, or ask your organization to provide training opportunities during work hours.

It's also important to get feedback on your work. Positive, constructive feedback helps you become more competent, so learn how to ask for feedback if you're not getting it regularly from your boss.

2. Relatedness

Can you imagine working alone and never having any contact with anyone? While this might sound quite appealing on your busy days, the truth is that all of us need – and want – contact with others. We want to have good relationships, we want to help and care about others, and we want to feel connected.

This is why building good work relationships is so important. If you feel that your relationships at work need some attention, then make an effort to communicate and connect with your colleagues. Ask someone you don't know well out to lunch; set up a virtual coffee break or a video call with people who work remotely; become a mentor; or volunteer to help a colleague who's behind on their work. The more that you give to others, the more you'll get in return.

You'll also improve your relationships by strengthening your emotional intelligence skills. The better you can relate to others, show empathy, and demonstrate kindness, the more people will want to be around you. These skills will also be useful in your career, so it's definitely worth working on them.

Build on that feeling of connectedness by networking with others in your field. This might involve attending trade conferences or joining an industry group. You can also use sites like LinkedIn and Twitter to connect with colleagues, or to follow industry experts.

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Positive relationships are also an essential element in your personal happiness. Relationships make up the "R" in the PERMA Model, which outlines the five elements that we need for health and well-being. So, take the time to strengthen the relationships around you: you'll find that you're happier as a result!

3. Autonomy

Autonomy is all about personal independence. When you have autonomy in your work, it means that you have freedom to make your own choices. You might be able to control when or how you complete a project, or even choose the colleagues that you get to work with.

Autonomy is an important factor in job satisfaction. So, how can you add more autonomy to your work?

You can start by asking for it! Come up with several ideas or projects that you feel comfortable asking for more control over. Then, depending on your relationship with your boss, have an open conversation to discuss these ideas and talk about how you can incorporate more decision-making into your role. Emphasize how they will benefit by giving you more freedom.

Next, with autonomy in mind, use job crafting strategies to reshape your current role. For example, find new ways of doing your current work, prioritize your existing tasks and responsibilities, or come up with a project that you feel will make a real difference in your organization.

Tip 1:

Self-Determination Theory is similar to McClelland's Human Motivation Theory, with the main difference being that you use McClelland's theory to motivate other people, while you use Self-Determination Theory to motivate yourself.

You can also compare Self-Determination Theory with Alderfer's ERG Theory, which uses Growth as a motivation factor rather than Competence. (This model also talks about Existence needs, but these are routinely addressed in most modern workplaces.)

Tip 2:

See our article on goal setting for another effective approach to self-motivation.

Key Points

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, psychologists at the University of Rochester, published their Self-Determination Theory in January 2000.

The theory centers on the belief that, at our most basic level, human beings are naturally motivated and curious. To reach our most productive and motivated state, we must meet the needs for:

  1. Competence.
  2. Relatedness.
  3. Autonomy.

When we're meeting all of these needs, we're productive, motivated, and engaged. However, when one or more of these elements are missing, we can struggle with our motivation.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (6)
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi Daveastro10,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. It is really great that you actually take time to do some self-examination about what's happening with your motivation, and have found that it is related to your ability to do the job and you do not see the reason for doing a particular task.

    When we are not feeling confident in our abilities, our motivation may be lower because it's a way to procrastinate and avoid actually doing the job. When we do not see the purpose of a job, then we often can think of 101-other things we could be doing!

    It's a great thing that you recognize you need/want communication with others and when you are not getting that, you are doing something about it! Being proactive about getting our needs met is more certainly a step in the right direction to increase our motivation. We may not get what we ask for, yet simply recognizing what makes us tick and seeking out opportunities is uplifting!

    Regarding employee engagement, in addition to the low percentage of people engaged in their work, the study found that 18% were actively disengaged! What do you think of that?

    Thanks for sharing.
  • Over a month ago wrote
    When my motivation has taken a down-turn and I take time to reflect I normally come to the conclusion its either I don't feel confident of my abilities to carry out the task or that I see no value or reason in putting the effort in to get the work done. There have been times when even my Manager saw no value or reason for the task but as he had it passed to him from upper management and had chosen to delegate it to me then the work had to be done. And its ok to push oneself a little out of the comfort zone but it very easy to say yes at the time to the task and to not consider your capabilities.

    I like working on projects but lately most of my work is outside of the realm of projects. On reflection this has probably affected me the most as the need at my workplace to communicate with others is reduced. I want to improve this aspect of my work, especially as in the long term I'm looking to progress to a management position and I don't want to lose my ability to communicate effectively with others.

    Most times I have been fortunate to have been given sufficient autonomy by my Manager and therefore have only experienced the lack of this on a rare occasion. Where I have been affected it too has caused me to be demotivated.

    For me if these issues are ongoing it causes distractions and in turn further demotivates and results in disengagement. Studies have suggested that only 25% of the workforce in any organization are fully engaged no matter what incentives are given it seems to make no difference. I think this is where self-motivation is key.
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    This article really resonated with me today!

    The three needs of competence, relatedness and autonomy really are very important to me. The biggest one for me is to have autonomy. If I do not have autonomy in my work, I feel constrained and suffocated! So, when I look for opportunities and work, I know that it is important to have some flexibility and autonomy with when and how I do the job!

    Recently, I've become more aware of the need to connection with others, the relatedness aspect here. To have someone who is like minded and who is available to bounce around ideas is important. Plus, I find you can use the energy together to get fire up even more and give you that extra push!

    Of course, competence is important because if I do not feel that I am able to do the job, then I feel stressed!

    So, how do others relate to the concept of competence, relatedness and autonomy?

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