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Self-Determination Theory – Are You Making The Same Mistake?

The Most Common Mistake…

When people think about motivation, the most common mistake is to think about motivation as an amount; “How can I get my employees more motivated?”, “how can I get someone less motivated to do something?” The most frequent question from managers is how can they motivate their team to improve. However, they are asking the wrong question. Rather than thinking of motivation as an amount it is important to think of types of motivation. It is important to motivate and encourage your employees to benefit the company as well as the employee’s well-being and self-development. The Self-Determination theory (SDT) that we will be talking about defines the basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness.

But What Does This Mean?

Self-Determination theory (SDT) is a theory of the human being’s motivation and personality, underpinning the motivation behind people’s choices. The theory was developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan in the mid-1980s and then further developed and evolved by scholars from around the world. SDT is a formal theory that defines intrinsic and extrinsic sources of motivation. Everything we do is controlled by motivation.

This Self-Determination theory is solely about human motivation. so, what is the difference between the types of motivation, and what are they?

Autonomous Motivation

The first distinction is between autonomous motivation and controlled motivation; autonomous motivation describes or names what you are doing when you have a full sense of willingness, volition and choice of whatever the activity is. If you are doing it with a real sense of enjoyment and if you are interested and invested in the activity, valuing it for your own reasons then, you are autonomously motivated.

Controlled Motivation

In contrast to being autonomously motivated, there is controlled motivation. Controlled motivation refers to completing tasks or doing something to get some reward or to avoid some sort of punishment – we have all been there and not because we wanted to. It means doing these things because you are feeling pressured, demanded or obliged to do it. Reflecting on controlled motivation, people often think about this rather than autonomous motivation. People see motivation as a reward system for their employees or making them feel that they must complete the tasks. This is not a sustainable way of motivating your team. A healthy balance between the two and to empower your employees would benefit their self-development and well-being.

Here are some examples of ways in which you can autonomously motivate your team:

  • Give your employees the tools and resources they need to reach your goals and theirs. This could be anything from training to technology, more staff etc.
  • Let your employees take ownership. This empowers them in their work to reach new targets.
  • Create choice. Freedom of choice is a key part of autonomy, but too much choice could be harmful. So within clear set boundaries, people are empowered to choose how they will complete the tasks they’ve been given.
  • Listen to your employees. Communication works both ways, you need to listen to them. Listen to their stresses and concerns and support them. Your employees should feel that they can express themselves and that they are listened to.

There are many more ways to promote autonomous motivation in the workplace.  

Self-Determination theory has demonstrated that when people are more autonomously motivated, their performance, their wellness and their engagement are affected. All of those things are greater when you are working autonomously. Compared to working in a controlled motivated environment. That is the first important distinction to make while looking into SDT. The second significant point about this theory is that all human beings have a set of basic psychological needs. These needs are also important to further enhance the individual’s well-being and self-development.

Types Autonomous Motivation

  1. Intrinsic motivation which is to do something because you find it interesting and enjoyable. Our natural/ intrinsic tendencies are to behave in an effective, proactive way because you enjoy what you are doing, this could be a hobby you love doing in your spare time. However, you are doing it because you want to and you like it rather than that you have to do whatever the activity is.
  2. Extrinsic motivation means you do it because it leads to some separable consequence not because you enjoy the activity or task. It has been questioned if extrinsic motivation could be classed as autonomous motivation or not. But in the research that Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan did, they found that people can actually internalise extrinsic motivation so as to become intrinsically motivated. This is because they understand the value of the activity or task that they are doing. This could be going on that dreaded morning run that you really don’t want to go on. But, you know this if you do the consequences would benefit you in one way or another. When they do this and recognise the value of the activity, they will be autonomously motivated and the outcomes would be positive.

Basic Psychological Needs

In the Self-Determination Theory,  Deci and Ryan identified three basic needs that fuel intrinsic motivation:


Firstly is the need for competence. That is to feel confident, effective and productive in whatever you are doing. It is a collection of things that are important to you, which is essential to wellness.


The second important need is to feel relatedness, that is to feel that you matter to others and you are cared for in your environment and surroundings. To feel like you belong to various groups that matter to you and to feel connected.


And finally, the third need is autonomy. I’ve already mentioned autonomous but it important to recognise that this is a human need, which must get satisfied in order to optimise performance. Autonomy is being congruent with yourself, being self-endorsed and being wholehearted behind what you are doing. If this need is not met there will negative psychological consequences. When people are autonomously motivated they feel competent, related to others and when they feel volition then the positive consequences will follow from that.

Read More on Autonomous Motivation

Why Is Self-Determination Theory Important?

Awareness of SDT as an employer means you can begin creating circumstances, to enable your people to optimise their work and personal outcomes. What you need to do is support their basic physiological needs to create the right environment. When you support these needs and recognise the different types of motivation and the impact they have, you can promote positive outcomes in your workplace to benefit you and your employees. Self-Determination Theory (SDT) shows us how we should listen and motivate our employees in a positive way rather than in a controlled manner. It allows us to realise the impact it can have on an individual’s psychological well-being and development.

Thank you for taking the time to read our blog! If you have any questions feel free to contact us.

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Jessica Ross

Written by Jessica Ross

As a cadet, I was rock climbing in Scotland to running around Longmoor with cam cream and a rifle beating most of the boys. There were endless opportunities and memories that was made with the ACF that I carry today. I studied photography and graphics throughout college for over 3 years. Working with my photography around college I have assisted professional photographers on location and in studio, with clients and professional models. I explore all types of photography such as portrait and landscape photography being my favourite along the south coast.

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