Understanding Self-Determination Theory and Motivation

Motivating others starts with motivating yourself.

People are often motivated to act by extrinsic motivators—external rewards such as money, prizes, and acclaim. This is where many leaders and companies focus a lot of attention, and it can be effective in the short term. But intrinsic motivation—internal drivers such as a desire to gain knowledge or make a difference—is where the magic happens.

What is self-determination theory?
Self-determination theory is a method for developing intrinsically motivated team members. Two psychologists, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, first introduced the idea in their 1985 book Self-Determination and Intrinsic Motivation in Human Behavior.

Self-determination theory suggests that people are motivated to grow and change by three innate and universal psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Autonomy Autonomy is the idea that we are in control of our own life and are able to make our own choices and set our own goals. Feeling in control helps us feel more committed, passionate, interested, and satisfied with what we do.
Competence Competence is feeling effective in our environment and that we have the skills needed for success–and also that there’s a possibility to learn and master new skills. Gaining mastery over challenges and taking in new experiences is how we develop a sense of self.

Relatedness is a sense of belonging or attachment to other people. It’s feeling that we matter. This is a two-way street—we foster relatedness by connecting with others and they foster it by connecting with us.


Being able to meet these needs is vital to our feelings of intrinsic motivation. When we are intrinsically motivated, we feel happier and more engaged at work.

So, how can you, as a leader, foster a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness in your team? Start with yourself!

You are the high bar for motivation for the rest of your team. So, you have to understand yourself and what motivates you, and be able to self-motivate first.

Autonomy at work means feeling like you have a say in what you work on and how you work on it. It’s not feeling micromanaged. Instead, you feel empowered to pursue objectives and deadlines on your terms.

Boost your feelings of autonomy by:

  • Taking ownership and controlling the “controllables” in your work.
  • Asking for more clarity from supervisors so you can own the whole of more tasks.
  • Creating concrete goals instead of having abstract ambitions. This can lead to a sense of control of the future.

Competence is about our human desire to learn, grown, and fell like we’re making progress. It could be progress in our career, in meeting a set of objectives, or in working with a team or company that’s making progress.

Boost your feelings of competence by:

  • Setting goals so you can track progress.
  • Recognizing progress in what you’ve already done instead of dwelling on what you have left to do.
  • Demonstrating your strengths and then requesting more work that is similar, as appropriate. (A bonus: When you provide positive feedback to your managers about what motivates you, you’re extrinsically motivating them to continue managing you successfully.)
  • Engaging in professional development and training to increase your skills and confidence.

Relatedness is about connection to those you work with and what you’re all working toward.

Boost your feelings of relatedness by:

  • Fostering social connections with team members and surrounding yourself with supportive people.
  • Connecting to the organization’s purpose, asking big-picture questions to understand the reasoning behind tasks.
  • Communicating effectively, sharing your communication preferences and respecting those of others.

Self-motivation is one of the hardest skills to learn but is critical to your success. It’s one of the main things that distinguishes high-achieving professionals from everyone else. You have to be there for yourself and optimize your personal energy so you can be there for others and motivate them.

How can you motivate others? Let’s talk about that next .

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