How to apply Self-determination theory to boost workplace motivation

Chris Caldwell | 6th March 2020

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There’s always a lot of debate about different psychological studies here at The Happiness Index. Our team benefits from the knowledge and passion of several experienced psychologists – one of whom is the neurological psychologist, human performance coach and author Clive Hyland.

With these bright minds on our side, it’s no surprise that we appreciate and consider many different theories to help us maximise the impact our employee engagement technology has on our users.

One theory that helps us to understand staff motivation and its key drivers is Deci and Ryan’s theory of self-determination. It’s not the only theory we consider in the area of motivation, but it is one of the most effective. This theory is centred around the importance of creating the right environment to facilitate and enhance motivation.

Why focus on motivation?

Motivation quote for self-determination theory SDT

Motivation is a pre-cursor to organisational success. It is essential if you want to create an engaged and productive team who will remain loyal to you and your business.There are many benefits to creating a team of motivated workers:

What is self-determination theory?

Self-determination theory (SDT) is all about human motivation and the key drivers that trigger it. The theory implies that everyone is inherently driven and motivated, but the correct conditions need to be established to facilitate this.

SDT recognises the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators and how these can affect motivation:

  • Intrinsic motivation comes from completing a task that is enjoyable and interesting. Let’s say one of your teams is working on a project that they really enjoy; it won’t be a chore to work long and hard on it– as it’s something they want to do.
  • Extrinsic motivation is when you are motivated to perform a task by the rewards or the fear of repercussions. Imagine the same team is assigned a task they do not enjoy. They will still finish it, but their motivation will be different. They will be driven by the rewards (recognition, bonuses, impressing peers) or the fear of being reprimanded.

The three inherent drivers of motivation

1. Competence: This is the desire to feel effective and in control of the environment and the outcome of the task. This can be capitalised upon by ensuring everyone is placed in the correct role and is sufficiently trained. Your workers must have opportunities to express their skills and strengths.

2. Autonomy: This is the extent to which the worker has the freedom to decide how and when they will fulfil their duties. SDT suggests that being autonomous is not the same as being independent. It simply means having a sense of free will when completing tasks. This can be capitalised upon by advising managers to demonstrate trust and avoid micro-managing.

3. Relatedness: This refers to our need to experience personal relationships and a sense of belonging to social groups. This can be capitalised upon by encouraging integration at work and celebrating victories and mourning losses together.

How do we use SDT at The Happiness Index?

Motivating our staff:

  • To boost staff competence, we encourage peer-to-peer mentoring to ensure people of varying levels of seniority can coach each other. This reinforces skills, encourages knowledge-sharing and creates empowered workers. We also have lunch-time learning sessions, where anyone can run sessions to help the rest of the team learn a new skill. This encourages competence and relatedness, as it promotes team cohesion and unity too.
  • We also promote relatedness by having team night outs, lunches, quizzes and employee of the month awards.
  • Finally, we demonstrate autonomy by letting our people work remotely and benefit from flexible working schedules. This ensures a healthy work-life balance and demonstrates trust.

Helping our clients motivate their people:

When creating our questionnaires and question sets, we always consider how each question will encourage the recipients to provide the insights their employers need to create action plans that will really make a difference.

Here are some of our recommended questions to demonstrate this:

  • How personally motivated are you to help make this organisation succeed?
  • How often do you go ‘above and beyond’ at work?
Specific SDT questions:
  • How well do the systems and processes support you in doing your job effectively? (Competence)
  • Overall, how do you rate the training you have received and its relevance to your job? (Competence)
  • How much do you think your opinions are valued by co-workers? (Relatedness)
  • How positive are your relationships with colleagues? (Relatedness)
  • How much freedom of working methods does your role provide? (Autonomy)
  • How well does your job provide you with opportunities to work remotely? (Autonomy)

Now you’ve seen how we use SDT. Let’s look at some strategies to help you capitalise on it too:

Satisfying your workers’ need for competence

Invest in staff training: The most effective way to motivate your people through competence is by investing in their continued development. When you focus on staff training and invest in your people’s futures, they will return the favour by demonstrating improved skills, increased motivation and better performance.

Encourage reverse mentoring: This is where workers of varying age, experience and seniority mentor each other to bridge knowledge gaps and share competencies.

Create a liquid workforce: To ensure your people are multi-faceted, you can train them to move away from the traditional hierarchical approach and work as a unified system of teams that share competencies and knowledge. For example, a marketer will no longer be expected to fulfil a marketer’s role in isolation. Instead, he/she will work closely with other people in different departments.

Case study: Sport’s clothing specialists Lululemon’s workplace culture is centred around goal setting. Employees are trained specifically on how to accomplish goals –  this includes their own personal targets which are unrelated to the business’ goals. This targeted coaching is an effective method to make workers feel competent and confident in their abilities.

Satisfying your workers’ need for autonomy

Set boundaries: Providing freedom is a key element in creating an autonomous workforce. However, providing too much freedom can be detrimental to the success of the initiative. To be successful, you and your leaders should advise and support your people through the process… and avoid controlling, delegating and giving orders at all costs.

Let workers manage their own schedules: By giving your people autonomy over where and when they work and focussing on results, rather than time spent on the work – you will demonstrate that you trust them. When you instil trust in your workers, you highlight that you value their abilities. This empowers and motivates them to help your business succeed.

Provide freedom of tasks: Try asking your people what they want to do. You should provide boundaries and ensure the task is achievable (competence). People will usually choose the task they are best equipped for.

Case study: Tech overlords Google allow their people to spend 20% of their time working on their own projects. This has proven highly effective for them as both Gmail and Google Translate were products of this initiative! This demonstrates that when people are granted autonomy, they don’t become lazy – they typically become more creative and innovative.

Satisfying your workers’ need for relatedness

Encourage integration: The main function of developing a unified team is for your people to work more effectively. However, by scheduling in time for work social events, i.e outings, birthdays, team lunches – you will boost company culture and tackle any issues around siloed teams. When you allow your people to socialise and forge meaningful relationships with each other, you enhance the enjoyment of their work and the overall quality of their performance.

Promote trust: For a team to be unified, everyone within it must trust each other. You can promote trust by modelling the behaviour you want to see – this will help it to permeate throughout the business. You can also deliver trust-building exercises, inspire your people to be honest and encourage everyone to be accountable for their actions.

Encourage feedback: You can promote the development of teams by encouraging everyone to give feedback on group dynamics and sharing the results afterwards. This will highlight what obstacles need overcoming to make the initiative successful and ensure everyone becomes part of a cohesive team.

Case study: Online shoe and clothing giants Zappos’ headquarters installed one entrance and exit to force staff integration and interaction. Moreover, they ditched the traditional password function for their computer system. Instead, they added a system that quizzes staff on their ability to identify images of colleagues.

Final thoughts

Whilst it is advisable to use organisational psychology within the workplace, it is important to note that one size does not fit all. Therefore, you should not rely solely on one theory. However, it is difficult to determine what types of motivation will work for everyone…

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