Heroes of Employee Engagement: No.5 Edward L. Deci & Richard Ryan

Jess Dean
Heroes of Employee Engagement: No.5 Edward L. Deci & Richard Ryan

If you’ve ever read anything about employee engagement and motivation, you’ll have come across the work of Deci and Ryan. Their ideas have been used as the bedrock for some of the most influential management theories out there. These two American clinical psychologists established the incredibly influential self-determination theory (SDT) in the 1970s, which has become the blueprint for understanding employee motivation.

Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory

‘SDT’ was initially developed using a combination of lab and field-based research, back in the early 1970s; however it wasn’t until the mid 1980s that the idea really took root.

In SDT, Deci and Ryan (1985) proposed that we all have three fundamental psychological needs that are critical for motivation: autonomy (a sense of control over our lives), relatedness (connecting with others and experiencing a sense of belonging), and competence (feeling capable in our interactions with the world). They argue that our levels of motivation are shaped by the extent to which we satisfy these fundamental needs.

They proposed that motivation falls on a scale that ranges from ‘extrinsic’ (controlled) to ‘intrinsic’ (autonomous). When we are intrinsically motivated, we complete tasks out of a fundamental interest and enjoyment in the activity itself – the pinnacle of motivation.

On the other hand, extrinsic motivation refers to times when our behaviour and motivation to perform a task originates from external influences. For example, the threat of punishment or the promise of reward.

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SDT is in itself quite complex. In fact, there are six sub-theories that establish the roles of autonomy, competence and relatedness in driving motivation.

For understanding intrinsic motivation and its origins, the most important theory is cognitive evaluation theory (CET) (Deci & Ryan 1985), which addresses how social context can impact our sense of competence and autonomy.

Organismic integration theory (OIT) (Deci & Ryan 1985), explained extrinsic motivation and how it actually falls into many different levels of ‘internalisation’ – becoming increasingly closer to a point where it morphs into intrinsic motivation.

As we said, it gets quite complex!

Applying Self-Determination Theory to employee engagement

Since Deci and Ryan’s initial findings, there’s been a lot of applied research into how SDT can be used every day in the workplace and in education.

Initially it was argued that external rewards – such as bonuses and pay rises – could not possibly increase intrinsic motivation, and would in fact only lead to extrinsic forms of motivation that threaten long-term performance (Deci 1971; Deci et al. 1999).

However, later developments based on SDT, led to the current understanding that it is the context in which feedback and rewards are given that is key. They argue that the way recipients interpret feedback and rewards is critical to their impact on our fundamental needs, and thus the potential for intrinsic motivation.

When we receive rewards or feedback that we interpret as boosts to our sense of autonomy or competence, this increases our intrinsic motivation. However, controlling rewards or predictable recognition can cause us to work in a certain way to meet these targets, which impedes our sense of autonomy and reduces our intrinsic motivation.

Positive feedback that we don’t feel accurately reflects our capabilities will also impede our sense of competence and relatedness, threatening intrinsic motivation.

The best forms of feedback enable us to fully understand what we have done well, or where we could make improvements – boosting all three needs: our sense of competence, relatedness and autonomy.

Understanding Self-Determination Theory as engagement ‘drivers’

The depth and detail of SDT makes it easy to think of employee engagement in terms of the factors that drive it.

Deci and Ryan’s concept of Competence has a clear relationship to our Accomplishment driver and reflects the extent to which we feel a sense of achievement on a day-to-day basis. This is influenced by the way we internalise our successes and failures. When we have the chance to challenge ourselves and receive feedback in the right manner, this increases our sense of competence and raises our Accomplishment levels.

SDT also highlights the key role of Autonomy. When management practices and structures are overbearing, and excessively bureaucratic, our sense of autonomy is impeded, and in turn our intrinsic motivation.

Relatedness reflects our need for strong Peer Relationships. We reap the motivational benefits when we feel comfortable amongst our colleagues, and have genuine connections enabling us to share our true opinions and feelings.

But that’s not all – the contributions of SDT can also be seen in our understanding of many other engagement drivers, such as Management Support, Goal-Setting and Recognition – a testament to its influence, utility and far-reaching value.

Self-determination theory is now in its forties, but we keep finding new ways to apply it. Deci and Ryan helped create the modern, compassionate workplace, and for that they truly deserve to be called ‘heroes’.

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