Category: Leadership & Vision

The Self-Determination Theory: What Drives Employees?

Why do employees often start their job with a positive mindset, only to become passive and demotivated after a certain amount of time?



Instead of thinking about how to motivate employees, it is more important to acknowledge that people are already motivated before the start of their new job and focus on the conditions that erode motivation with time.

One explanation can be found in the self-determination theory (SDT), a macro theory of human motivation supported by substantial scientific evidence. Fundamental to SDT is the notion that humans are inherently motivated. We have a natural desire to grow, to master our environments and to live a meaningful life. SDT states that these natural tendencies are part of human behavior, but that they can be obstructed when a small set of psychological needs is not met.

Research shows that three ‘nutriments’ are required for healthy human functioning and motivation: autonomy, relatedness and competence. Psychological needs are similar to physical needs, such as hunger and thirst. Everyone differs in the extent to which they experience hunger, but all human beings need food in order to survive.


Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence

Autonomy: SDT describes autonomy as a person’s need to be in control of their own life or to act volitionally. However, this doesn’t mean to be independent of others. More important is the perception of having choices and being able to function without external pressure. This sense of psychological freedom is experienced when employees are given the opportunity to be involved in decision making, although it can also arise when tasks are assigned empathically and with sufficient accountability.

According to the SDT, the need for autonomy is therefore satisfied when employees fully support (the reason for) their behavior, regardless of whether they have initiated this behavior themselves or whether they were encouraged to do so from the environment in which the behavior was explained in a meaningful way.

If managers take the time to explain decisions of the leadership team and listen to their employees’ opionions, people become more commited to the goals of the company and therefore feel more connected to their individual tasks.

Relatedness: The need for relational connectedness is defined as our desire to build positive and profound relationships with others, along with being part of a larger whole.

Leaders should create a safe, trusting environment in the workplace, by showing empathy and inclusion. Working towards collective goals, minimizing competition and including more social events in the workplace helps building relatedness. Other examples are acknowledging employees’ emotions and communicating transparently.

Competence: The need for competence is the desire to interact effectively with the environment. People want to feel able to succeed and understand their context.

It begins by understanding the individual direction each employee wants to go, identifying their skillsets and focusing on their strenghts. One simple example to improve competence is task identity, whereby the final outcome of different smaller tasks is clarified. It allows the employee to be part of the entire process instead of just being a small link in the chain.


Build Motivating Work Places

Numerous studies have shown that employees who feel autonomous, competent and connected perform better than their colleagues whose needs are not sufficiently met. They are more satisfied with their work, less exhausted, voluntarily spend more time at work, accept organizational changes more easily and are less inclined to leave their job. Moreover, work satisfaction goes hand in hand with general well-being outside the work context.

Improvements on all of these three areas can help create an environment where employees can grow and thrive. It is therefore important to see the workplace as more than just a building for people to automatically perform their tasks like machines.
It is about creating an environment that can stimulate employees physically, emotionally and intellectually.

Besides investing in attracting talents, companies should also think about retaining employees by supporting their needs and helping them to reach their full potential.


The SDT has been developed by Deci and Ryan. You can find the comprehensive book here.

The book is part of the otolith library.

Motivation is the true human capital. Many practices within organisations aim at increasing motivation. But often, they only demotivate.

If you want to know more about how to build contexts that motivate people, or at least do not demotivate them, get in touch.

Get in touch

A Plea for More Fuzzy Thinking in Strategy


Punk or New Wave?

Cubicle Thinking. We like it. We like to put people and objects in categories, typologies, … We like to say that this is this and that is that. Putting people, objects and events in categories gives us the illusion that we understand and that we can take control.

We do not like fuzziness, a blurry state of ambiguity.

Alas, the world is fuzzy. We cannot say that the one explanation for what is happening, is the only explanation. We cannot afford to attribute certainty to predictions. Experts can only say that “it depends”. Expertise is the art of formulating and testing hypotheses.

This is the new normal. Gone are the days that we could engage in binary thinking. We can no longer say that this is right and that is wrong. This is weak and this is strong. This is masculine. This is feminine. That is good, and this is bad. Generation X, Y, Z.Read More

Well-being Programs: Carrying Water to the Ocean?


Well-Being Programs on the Rise

There are more and more programs on well-being. What strikes me is that they always start from a good intention but often do not have the desired effect.Read More

The Three Levels of Strategy Execution


About Strategy

Organisations need to reconsider the way they shape the strategic process. The time that this process is linear has gone. In the past strategy was a logic sequence of definition, execution and evaluation. It was enough to define targets and cascade them downwards.Read More

Never Forget Your Values.

As many organisations are heading for heavy waters, we should not forget the question of moral leadership. Never forget your values, David Ducheyne argues in a plea for a human approach of difficult decisions.Read More

Why did Soldiers Fight in World War I?


Today 100 years ago, the first world war ended. A conflict with hundreds of thousands of casualties. The Great War, as it was known before there was a second conflict, still fascinates us. Apart from all the historical analyses I have a question about motivation. Why did soldiers fight during World War 1? What was their motivation to leave the trenches across the front and be maimed and slaughtered?Read More

One Year of Entrepreneurship

The First Year

A year has gone by since I have left the company I had worked for for 11 years. Many people thought I had married that company as I felt and behaved like an ambassador, representing it with passion in the outside world. And in many ways this organisation defined who I was, or who I had become.Read More

When Asking Customer Feedback is Insulting

The Rediscovery of the Customer

Companies seem to have (re)discovered the customer. You might think that companies can never forget to focus on the customer. I can tell you, they do.

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Clashes at the Top: Handling Tensions in Governance

Tensions at the top of an organization are not rare. Sometimes they are fruitful. But sometimes they are detrimental. They all have to do with power and collaboration. If we would see Governance more as a kind of collaboration rather than a kind of steering, we could solve many of the unproductive tensions.

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Navigating Continuous Change – Report of an LBS Workshop

During the reunion of the executive education alumni of the London Business School I had the pleasure to co-moderate one of the workshops. The topic was how to navigate continuous change. About 20 international executives exchanged their experiences. Here are the key learnings.

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