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Part 2: Workplace Motivation & Self-Determination Theory

Updated: May 16

Self-Determination Theory

Despite the talk about the desire for employee engagement, empirical data suggests a stark reality – according to a Gallop Poll, only a third of employees feel engaged at work.

The jury is out, organizations struggle to actually motivate employees.

Enter Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a comprehensive model validated by numerous empirical studies over the last four decades. Unlike one-size-fits-all approaches, SDT recognizes the complexity of human behavior, focusing on individual needs and experiences.

SDT revolves around three fundamental psychological needs: Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence.

  • Autonomy entails a sense of choice and ownership in one's work

  • Relatedness emphasizes belonging and support within the workplace

  • Competence involves feeling effective and successful, fostering growth and mastery.

Research indicates that SDT predicts crucial organizational outcomes, including financial performance, talent retention, and employee wellbeing.

Implementing SDT in the workplace presents challenges for leaders, primarily due to the tension between short-term pressures and long-term motivation. However, embracing SDT can transform traditional practices, turning initiatives like goal-setting into potent tools for intrinsic motivation.

One personal experience exemplifies the struggle organizations face in embracing SDT. Despite proposing a transformative approach to goal-setting aligned with SDT principles, the initiative was dismissed. This shift towards control-oriented directives ultimately led to dissatisfaction and a lack of genuine motivation among employees.

In essence, organizations must move beyond visible outcomes and embrace the nuanced drivers of motivation to foster lasting engagement and satisfaction among employees. SDT provides a roadmap for achieving this balance, emphasizing the importance of autonomy, relatedness, and competence in creating a thriving workplace culture.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. Springer Science & Business Media.

Rigby, C. S., & Ryan, R. M. (2018). Self-determination theory in human resource development: New directions and practical considerations. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 20(2), 133-147.


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