Motivation and Self Determination Theory

I have often been asked questions about motivation. Typically “How can I motivate my team members?”, “What can I do to stay motivated myself?”, “Why are some people so difficult to motivate?.”

We operate in a highly competitive world. Business success is not easy to achieve, and leadership of teams is arguably the most difficult part of it. The ability to motivate others, and oneself, is a hugely important issue.

Some of the core theories include self determination theory, cognitive evolution theory, achievement theory, self efficacy theory and flow theory. In this article I will explore self determination theory, and touch on concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I hope to provide some useful insights into human motivation.

Self Determination Theory (SDT)

As a theory of human motivation, self determination theory includes basic issues such as personality development, self regulation, psychological needs, life goals, and aspirations. This theory is grounded in differentiating the types of motivation. The idea is that it is the type or quality of an individual’s motivation, and not the amount of motivation, that predicts important outcomes. These include psychological health and wellbeing, effective performance in work or sport, creative problem solving and conceptual learning.

According to this theory, reasons behind the individual’s motivation, or why they choose to participate, exert effort and continue in an activity, can be organized along a continuum of self determined behaviour. At one end of the continuum is intrinsic motivation which refers to participating in an activity for the personally inherit fulfilment and/or satisfaction derived from being involved in the activity. On the other end of the continuum is the least self determined form of motivation referred to as amotivation, which is lacking intention or reasons for participation. Amotivation includes a feeling of powerlessness to produce any desired result with their behaviour.  In the middle of the continuum, between intrinsic motivation and amotivation, is extrinsic motivation. In this theoretical model, extrinsic motivation defines a motivation to participate in an activity as a means to achieve some other desired end or reward.

People participate in activities for various reasons, some intrinsic, some extrinsic. However, engaging in activities for more intrinsically self determined reasons is associated with a number of benefits including greater persistence and enjoyment in the activity.

According to self determination theory, individuals develop a self determined motivational orientation when participation in an activity leads to the fulfilment of three basic psychological needs. These needs are competence, autonomy and relatedness. Competence involves a feeling of being effective at a certain task; autonomy is perceived as having both a choice in and control over one’s own behaviour and relatedness is a sense of belonging toward others.

Self determination theory suggests that individuals will seek out activities that satisfy these three fundamental needs whereby anything that impacts on the person’s sense of competence, autonomy and relatedness will impact on the type of motivation developed.

Competency is often about having the tools, equipment, training and support to perform to a certain standard and a sense of competence derives from a job well done or task successfully completed.  Autonomy is about choice and freedom, and this is where job design is so important and making sure that people have sufficient room to take action and make decisions. Relatedness, or a sense of belonging towards others, reminds us of the importance of colleagues and communities with which individuals form relationships which can strongly influence behavior.

If motivation is about persistence and enjoyment, reflecting on the questions “How can I motivate my team members?”, “What can I do to stay motivated myself?”, “Why are some people so difficult to motivate?” we must pay attention to intrinsic motivation, and in particular the extent to which competency, autonomy and relatedness are addressed when carrying out activities.

So next time you contemplate starting an initiative, (be it a personal fitness programme or work related project) think carefully about this issue of motivation. Make sure you design a programme of activities which will meet the intrinsic needs of people, as well as providing those all important rewards for success.


© Barbara Capstick
January 2011.