A Research Paper By Audrey Bolo, Career Coach, KENYA
Self-Determination Theory (SDT)
A key factor in employee motivation is the relationship they have with their manager. A strong manager typically understands the basic tenets of motivating their team-based Self-Determination Theory (SDT). SDT is a macro theory of human motivation that focuses on intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. All employees have three basic psychological needs—for competence, autonomy, and relatedness—the satisfaction of which promotes increased levels of motivation. More motivation, however, is not as critical as the right kind of motivation so understanding the hierarchy of basic needs and the supporting factors will produce motivation that is relevant and of a higher quality. The basic needs can frame how motivation at the individual and organizational levels can be categorized and improved. Managers do not need to be certified coaches but they need to have some basic understanding of SDT and be empowered with the right questions and tactics to uncover who the individuals on their team are and what drives their motivation.
Self-Determination Theory (SDT) Equipping and Empowering Managers
Strong leaders and managers in the workplace are not nice-to-have but paramount to the success of an organization. They shape the lived experience of employees and are vital ambassadors of the organization’s vision, mission, and goals. They are responsible for translating these into motivation that leads to productivity and the desired organization-level outcomes. Given how rapidly businesses are started and scale, coupled with how the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated a remote work culture, equipping and empowering managers is vital to success.
Throughout this research paper, the real-life case study of a non-profit organization, One Acre Fund, will be referenced. One Acre Fund serves smallholder farmers across Africa by providing quality products and inputs so that the farmers can grow their way out of hunger and poverty. The organization is made up of 8,000+ employees ranging from field officers to the c-suite team and they serve more than one million farmers (as of 2021). An area that is lacking within manager training at the organization is guiding managers on how to understand and then motivate their teams and although manager Bootcamp training will be revamped and relaunched, a key theory that would improve manager quality is Self-Determination Theory (SDT).
SDT is a broad framework for the study of what motivates humans based on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. SDT describes a macro theory for framing human motivation and it was developed by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. According to Ryan and Deci (2017), human behaviors are influenced to a great extent by personal and contextual motivational factors.
SDT outlines three core human needs. Autonomy, relatedness, and mastery or competence.
- Autonomy: control within an environment.
- Relatedness: belonging, relationships with others.
- Mastery: being able to do something well.
SDT is often applied to the workplace, and a very real link has been found between work environments that support the three core needs producing positive work-related outcomes.
Deci and Ryan state that the two main aspects on which humans differ include causality orientations and aspirations or life goals. Causality orientations refer to an individual’s pattern of motivation and behavior (2018). The three causality orientations are:
- Autonomous: all three basic needs are satisfied.
- Controlled: competence and relatedness are somewhat satisfied but autonomy is not.
- Impersonal: none of the three needs are satisfied.
Aspirations or life goals are what people use to guide their behavior. They generally fall into one of the two categories of motivation mentioned earlier: intrinsic or extrinsic.
Examples of self-determination at work:
- Autonomy when completing a project.
- An employee’s idea or opinion is considered when making a decision.
- Control over working style and other preferences like working hours and location.
- Taking responsibility for actions, positive or negative, and building an ownership mentality vs blaming external factors and playing the victim.
Coaching to Evoke Awareness Around Personal Responsibility
Managers must understand how personal responsibility impacts self-determination. In the above examples, those who take responsibility for their actions and do things because they align with their values and goals are self-determined. Those who blame others, see themselves as constant victims, and do things solely for external approval or recognition, is not self-determined (C Ackerman).
A manager needs to spend time exploring who the employee is, what their values are, how those values impact their work, how they view their responsibility in their work, and what their motivations are. This can draw an employee’s attention to how they react in situations and if they take responsibility or are prone to feeling like the victim.
Coaching Focus Areas Within a Workplace
The three basic needs can guide the focus and help frame conversations with teams or individuals. Taking a step back from focusing only on the individual employee and also understanding how these three basic needs impact the entire system within an organization, can provide important context and perspective for a manager.
At One Acre Fund, the first need for autonomy can be linked back to the organization chart and team structure and set-up. The organization purposefully aims to be flat, with the minimum number of layers required between CEO and field teams. Continuous feedback is also an important mechanism to support autonomy within the organization as it fosters a culture of consistent, open communication through weekly check-ins, quarterly career coffee chats, and biannual performance development reviews.
Relatedness is about belonging, a key component when building diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy. At One Acre Fund, there has been a recent shift to prioritizing not only who is included in shaping the culture and making decisions but also how they are included and how they feel when included. Regular feedback through focus groups, email, one on one conversations, newsletters, and surveys promote the sense of teamwork, connectedness, and relatedness. In addition, there is a movement towards quality, personalized interactions, whether digitally or in person.
Competence or mastery can be connected to performance management within One Acre Fund. Being able to do something well relies on knowing what good or great looks like and how it will be measured as competently executed. Thus, the focus on revamping the entire performance management system signals how important it is for employees to independently track their performance against expectations as well as understand their strengths and development areas.
Statistics Related to Motivation
Employees Work 20% Better When Motivated
A Gallup study shows that a company’s treatment of its employees can positively affect business or adversely, put it in a disadvantaged position. Motivated individuals are found to continuously search for ways to improve productivity and help overloaded colleagues to ensure efficiency. Employees carry out purposeful, meaningful work when properly motivated. (Gallup Firm)
Only 15% Of Employees Worldwide Feel Motivated
A Gallup study shows that only 15% of employees feel engaged in their workplace, which points to a motivational crisis for the global workforce. Employee engagement statistics further reveal that in Europe, only 10% of employees are motivated at work, which compares to 33% for the US. The employee motivation statistics for the UK are even more alarming with the number as low as 8%, with a noticeable decrease over the years. (Gallup Firm)
57% Of Employees Quit Because of Their Boss
People leave managers, not companies. 57% of employees have left a job because of their manager according to DDI’s Frontline Leader Project (2019). Furthermore, 14% have left multiple jobs because of their managers. An additional 32% have seriously considered leaving because of their manager.
There is an intrinsic connection between a report and its manager. Their success and motivation can be directly tied to a manager’s ability to support the employee’s driving factors and their definition of success. Following the leadership principle of meeting a report where they are instead of assuming that what drives you will drive them, can unlock more productive, engaged employees that are willing to go the extra mile and commit for the long term to an organization.
SDT has addressed the links between motivation and the dual concerns of performance and wellness in organizations. It has focused on what facilitates high-quality, sustainable motivation and what brings out volitional engagement in employees and customers. SDT suggests that fostering workplace conditions where employees feel supported in their autonomy is not only an appropriate end in itself but will lead to more employee satisfaction and thriving, as well as collateral benefits for organizational effectiveness. Because SDT details the multiple factors, including managerial styles and pays contingencies, that support employees’ autonomy and competence at work, it provides a framework for allowing them to be more engaged as they and their organizations develop and thrive (Deci, Olafsen, Ryan, 2017).
SDT on Goals and Motivation
We are more satisfied and successful when we can pursue goals in our way rather than according to a strict, external system of regulation. Even when pursuing extrinsic rewards like wealth or fame, we are more satisfied and self-actualized when we pursue them autonomously, for our reasons, and with our methods (Deci & Ryan, 2000).
A manager needs to a) understand the three basic needs, b) understand an employee’s causality orientation, and c) take the time to investigate what it truly means for them to do things their way. When is it more important for self-determination to show up in their work? How is it different for different employees? How can they apply open questions and curiosity to better understand an employee’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivating factors?
We hear a lot about motivation in the workplace, but we can misunderstand what it means. A common misconception around motivation at work is that we need more motivation when we need the right kinds of motivation.
When we have high support, it means that our direct managers are successfully making space for our core needs and are helping us actualize them. Fulfillment, on the other hand, speaks to whether our needs are ultimately getting met. It is important to leverage both of these lenses when looking at motivational quality, as it will point us more directly to where we can take action to maximize engagement.
There are also three supporting factors that relate specifically to healthy motivational quality in the workplace. These are compensation (fairness and satisfaction), company pride, and personal resources (vitality and mindfulness).
- Compensation: how related is what we are paid to what we have done.
- Company pride: connection with company values and feeling that the company is having a positive impact on employees, customers, or the community at large.
- Personal resources: can an employee stay focused and use useful energy to complete a task.
For the individual, an understanding of these concepts is invaluable in today’s landscape, where an organization’s employee engagement initiatives so rarely involve their employees in the solution – engagement is frequently treated as a top-down initiative.
At the institutional level, this motivational framework offers a paradigm-shifting solution. SDT revolutionizes how we think about employee motivation in the context of talent optimization. The “carrot-and-stick” tactic of using punishments and rewards to drive certain behaviors may not be as credible or effective an approach as it has previously been considered. Departing from this traditional method and moving towards a system that embraces the tenets of SDT will give way to a more engaged workforce and ultimately a higher impact on the bottom line.
Apply SDT Successfully at Work
A manager doesn’t need to be a certified coach or student of psychology to understand and apply SDT successfully at work to motivate their team. Instead of trying to change an employee’s perspective to increase their motivation, a manager would be more successful if they understood their intrinsic motivations first.
In some instances, a manager needs to be direct with their report (e.g. complete project X so you can learn new skills). In other instances, they need to delegate (e.g. let’s take project X off your hands and assign it to your colleague so you have more time to learn new skills). In other instances, a manager needs to coach their report and this can include questions like:
- “What more do you need in your role to get excited?”
- “What else could you be doing at work that you don’t have time for?”
- “How does managing project X make you feel?”
- “What do you value about the work you do now?”
- “What skills do you want to learn next?”
It is common for anyone to want to feel in control of what happens in their life and with the activities they complete. At One Acre Fund, a pivotal shift will occur when managers are properly trained, based on SDT, to better understand their teams and improve the quality of their motivation and ultimately, their outcomes.
Deci EL, Ryan RM. Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. New York: Plenum Press
Deci EL, Ryan RM. The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychol.
Self-Determination Theory in Work Organisations: The State of a Science Edward L. Deci, Anja H. Olafsen, Richard M. Ryan
Annual Review of Organisational Psychology and Organisational Behavior