Improve Employee Motivation and Performance Using Self-Determination Theory

employee motivated smiling

Having motivated and performing teams relies on your employee’s psychological needs being met within their work and environment. Decades of research has shown us that the self-determination theory can help businesses explain and identify opportunities to improve employee motivation, making them happy and productive. Self-determination is a theory of human motivation and personality, it refers to a person’s ability to manage themselves, make confident choices, and think on their own.

The self-determination theory is based on a human’s inherent tendency to move towards growth and outlines the three essential psychological needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness. You can leverage self-determination theory to improve employee motivation and performance.


Competence is the need to feel like we are doing a good job. When someone feels competent they are able to interact effectively in their environment, and they believe they have the needed skills for achieving their goals. A competent person feels a sense of mastery over their environment and the different tasks and skills needed to do their job. A feeling of competence is enhanced when the demands of a job is matched to a person’s skills, when they are a naturally good fit for the job or hardwired in such a way that the job is highly aligned with how they think. By matching the right person to the role or the right tasks to the way the employee thinks and operates, they are more likely to feel competence. Positive feedback also helps improve feelings of competence. Alternatively, negative feedback, poor performance and feeling too challenged by the work can decrease feelings of competence.


Autonomy is the need for people to feel in control of their own behaviors and goals, it involves self-initiation and self-regulation. When employees are given choices, are able to govern their own behavior, be a driving force in their own careers, and have their thoughts and feelings acknowledged they will feel independent and autonomous. This sense of being able to take direct action that results in real, meaningful change is a major part in helping employees feel self-determined. You undermine feelings of autonomy when an employee feels controlled or threatened by others, when you don’t involve them in making goals or setting deadlines.


Finally, relatedness is the third need in self-determination theory. Relatedness is the connection we feel to others, feeling attachment to those around us and a sense of belonging. Connection provides help and support and makes us feel more able to achieve goals. Leaders can promote feelings of relatedness in the workplace by demonstrating respect and care, providing an inclusive environment and by building relationships at work. Having competitions within a team can undermine feelings of connection. Having a poor culture, cliques and criticism within the team will also decrease feelings of relatedness.

By meeting these three psychological needs in the workplace and being aware of the role they play in creating happy, productive and motivated employees, businesses can create more high performing individuals.

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