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How to Use Self-Determination Theory to Increase Employee Motivation?

Adeline de Oliveira
How to use self-determination theory to increase employee motivation?

What employee basic psychological needs must you consider as a business leader? What techniques can you use to enhance employee motivation in the workplace? According to self-determination theory, employees are motivated by both internal factors, such as creativity, sustained passion, and job satisfaction, and external factors, such as evaluations, rewards systems, or other people's validation.

This article is a guide to help business leaders understand the self-determination theory perspective, how it works, and how they can improve the level of self-determination of their employees.

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What is self-determination theory (SDT)?

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a theory of motivation and personality that concerns people's inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs. Self-determination is a person's ability to manage themselves using their self-consciousness to make independent and confident choices. It puts the individual in the driver's seat, making them responsible for their decisions, their own behaviors and the results that follow.

Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan developed the theory in the early 1970s at the University of Rochester, to understand how people are motivated to engage in different activities and how autonomous and controlled motivations may relate to well-being and psychological health. The theory suggests that people are driven by their need to grow and achieve fulfillment.

Since then, the theory of self-determination has been the subject of extensive research. Other experts such as Vansteenkiste, m, Paul Baard, and Anja H. Olafsen have further explored the subject (Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior). It applies to different cultures, contexts and populations. The theory has proven its predictive value on various outcomes such as employee engagement, organizational behavior, motivation, participation in physical activities, health care and educational outcomes.

SDT and the 3 basic psychological needs satisfaction

The self-determination theory proposes that people have innate psychological needs that motivate them to grow and change. By meeting these needs, people function optimally and experience a sense of well-being.

Here are the three basic psychological needs of SDT that are essential for human motivation and well-being;

  • Autonomy: Refers to the feeling of being in charge of your goals and behavior. Humans need to be masters of their destinies and control their lives. Taking direct action that results in real change plays a vital role in helping humans feel self-determined.
  • Competence: Describes a person who has the sufficient ability, judgment, strength, or intellect to accomplish a given task. In the case of SDT, it is more about the feeling of growing, accomplishing the challenges and flourishing.
  • Relatedness or connection: Refers to the sense of social belonging, a person's need to feel attachment, to recognize themselves in the values of those around them, and to feel that their actions benefit others.

3 basic psychological needs of SDT

Difference between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is a person's ability to engage and complete an activity for their own sake because it's rewarding, interesting, enjoyable, or satisfying to them.

Extrinsic motivation refers to a person's ability to engage and complete an activity while under-motivation from external incentives such as employee evaluation, extrinsic rewards, punishments, or other forms of manipulation.

Extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation are opposed to each other. Extrinsic leads people to conform to other people's standards, while intrinsic focuses on people sticking to their ideal selves.


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How does self-determination theory work?

It's good to note that psychological growth arising from self-determination doesn't automatically happen but requires continuous sustenance. According to Deci and Ryan's suggestions, social support is vital. A person's social conditions influence whether they will have a passive or proactive tendency. Only through interactions and relationships can a person foster or hinder personal growth and well-being.

Examples of Self-Determination

Here are some examples of self-determination applications:

  • A college student choosing to study and major in a subject they are passionate about instead of what their parents or society expect them to study.
  • A person quitting a high-paying job they dislike to start a new business despite the uncertainty and risks involved.
  • An individual setting personal fitness or health goals and taking the initiative to achieve the goals while acknowledging the expected obstacles or setbacks.
  • A person standing up to their beliefs and values, even if they are going against other people's opinions.
  • A disabled person who decides how to live and what support is needed based on his or her personal opinion, rather than having people make choices for them.
  • An employee or team leader taking the initiative to propose new projects or taking the lead in implementing new ideas, work settings, strategies, or procedures for their team or organization.

Self-determination theory: a proven motivational tool for athletes and employees

Since the theory of self-determination is a universal concept, these same skills can solve problems in all life contexts, including sport.

With a Master's degree in sport psychology, Sophie Gadoury looked at the link between self-determination theory and the relationship between coaches and their athletes:

"I wanted to find answers as to why some relationships lead to optimal performance and well-being, and others do not. The world's most established motivational science, self-determination theory, provides a scientifically robust framework. It not only answers these questions, but also identifies reliable pathways for leaders to learn to adopt a leadership style that supports their athletes' need for autonomy, competence, and social affiliation."

It has been shown that coaches who learned this supportive leadership style in their athletes won over 30% more medals than those who did not develop these skills in preparation for the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Regular feedback is present in sport because it is a large part of the coach's role. Unfortunately, this is not the case at work where it is too often simply absent. Over 20% of leaders avoid giving feedback because they consider the task too difficult and stressful.

Learning to adopt inviting and connecting language instead of controlling and conditional language is one of the key skills of supportive leaders.

After a stint with the Canadian Olympic Committee and then in the corporate world, Sophie Gadoury decided to found Nimble Bubble and its Feedback Training Center. Her goal is to enable leaders to develop the powerful impact skill of feedback, which is a clear line of inquiry into self-determination.

Developing a culture of continuous feedback could well help you "win more medals" than your competitors in business! 

-       Sophie Gadoury, Founder Nimble Bubble

Why are self-determination and intrinsic motivation important for employee well-being at work?

Despite individual differences, self-determination and intrinsic motivation are essential for employee workplace well-being. They are associated with work motivation, high engagement levels, optimal functioning, productivity, and satisfaction in one's work.

Here are the benefits of self-determination and intrinsic motivation for work organizations:

  • Employees with autonomy and control over their work are more likely to feel motivated and invested in their work.
  • Employees feel competent in achieving desired work outcomes. They are more likely to feel confident and engaged in their work, leading to enhanced productivity and better organizational commitment.
  • Intrinsically motivated employees tend to be more satisfied with their job characteristics, have better mental health and physical well-being, and show more work engagement.
  • Employees are committed to serving the organization and staying in their jobs for extended periods, leading to high retention of top human resources, and a decrease in turnover intention.
  • Self-determined employees are more creative, innovative, and productive. They portray signs of empowerment, but also resilience in the face of adversity in the workplace.
  • Employees are less likely to experience work stress, burnout, and turnover, leading to better self-regulation and higher levels of productivity.

In summary, self-determination and intrinsic motivation are essential for employee well-being at work because they are correlated with positive outcomes such as engagement, satisfaction, commitment, creativity, innovation, productivity, and resilience.


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The 6 ways to apply self-determination and autonomous motivation in your organization


Managers, here are 6 ways you can apply self-determination and autonomous motivation in your organization:

  1. Enhancing employee self-esteem and autonomy: Allow employees to decide how they accomplish their roles and responsibilities. Autonomy support encourages employees to take ownership of their roles by allowing them to choose the best behavioural practices and processes to achieve the desired results.

  2. Providing skill development opportunities: Provide opportunities to empower employees with new skills and knowledge as well as to improve their existing abilities. Skill development opportunities enable employees to acquire new knowledge, making them more competent in their work while increasing their autonomy.

  3. Developing a sense of relatedness: Bring your employees together around your company's purpose and foster teamwork among them. When individuals feel connected to each other, they better integrate the idea that their work benefits their colleagues as well as the organization.

  4. Recognizing and rewarding employees: Recognize and reward employees for their outstanding achievements, high-quality work, and contributions. Employees feel valued and appreciated, which increases their sense of autonomy and competence.

  5. Encouraging employee engagement: Encourage engagement in decision-making and problem-solving processes. Employees feel a sense of belonging and appreciation when they have a say in the organization's day-to-day operations.

  6. Assigning meaningful roles: Assign your employees meaningful and fulfilling roles and responsibilities. Employees are more self-determined and motivated when roles and responsibilities are meaningful and fulfilling.

Implementing these strategies in an organization fosters a culture of self-determination and autonomous motivation leading to improved employee engagement, satisfaction, and well-being.


Self-determination theory is helpful to organizations and human resource management because it enables business managers to understand what motivates employees' behaviors. Managers are in a position to assess the current employee types of motivation by structuring work environment elements such as interpersonal relationships, job design, and compensation to facilitate employee psychological need satisfaction. Business leaders should adopt behaviors that directly enhance their employee satisfaction needs.

Do you want to adopt efficient and scalable practices and processes to foster good behaviors in your workforce as a business leader?

Schedule a call with one of our experts or download our free guide or brochure. We have effective management development solutions to optimize your organization's financial and operational performance.

Adeline de Oliveira

Adeline de Oliveira

Writer and editorial manager for about 15 years, Adeline de Oliveira is passionate about human behavior and communication dynamics. At Proaction International, she covers topics ranging from Industry 5.0 to operational excellence, with a focus on leadership development. This expertise enables her to offer insights and advice on employee engagement and continuous improvement of managerial skills.