Category: People Strategy

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

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