Self-Determination Theory and Employee Motivation: An Overview


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Maximizing employee productivity has long been a major concern for organizational leaders. Read this short paper to uncover the benefits of self-determination theory when used in the workplace, ways leaders can support motivation in employees, and a surprising truth about the downside of rewards.

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Self-Determination Theory and Employee Motivation: An Overview

  1. 1. Self-Determination Theoryand Employee Motivation:An Overviewby Jack McDaniel A Business Issue Quick ReadWorkplace Productivity Self-Determination TheoryTheories Over the last 40 years, Edward Deci,Maximizing employee productivity Richard Ryan, Daniel Pink, and manyhas long been a major concern for others have shed new light on intrinsicorganizational leaders. In the early 1900s, motivation. Their work has led to and About the AuthorFrederick Taylor introduced the theory supports Self-Determination Theory Jack McDaniel, Lead Designer,of Scientific Management: workers are (SDT). AchieveGlobalprimarily motivated by pay, and the main Their research found that employees arejob of leaders is to set and enforce work In his role as Lead Designer, intrinsically motivated to perform work-standards. His theory, though flawed in related tasks efficiently and effectively. Jack evaluates market needs,its oversimplification of motivational Thus, the task of leaders is to create and builds programs that aredynamics, set the standard for rigorous conditions in the work environment pertinent and effective. Jackworkplace study. that are conducive to optimal employee graduated from the UniversityB.F. Skinner made an important motivation. of North Texas and works fromadvancement in the middle of the 20th The key to SDT is recognizing that there AchieveGlobal’s Dallas office.century with his concept of behaviorism, are two different types of motivation:in which rewards motivate good behaviorand punishment discourages bad behavior. • Autonomous motivation – Doing aAlthough recognizing what would become job because it is either intrinsicallythe well-known “Hierarchy of Needs” put interesting or is consistent with theforth by Abraham Maslow in the 1960s, employee’s deep and abiding personalSkinner and his adherents maintained that values.motivation originates exclusively outside • Controlled motivation – Doing a jobof the employee, thus necessitating tight because the employee feels pressured bycontrol of employee behavior from leaders. external or internal forces to do it.Maslow, Frederick Herzberg, and othersshifted the focus by showing that once Studies have shown that the type ofthe lower orders of needs have been met motivation that employees have is more(physiological needs like food, shelter, important than the amount of motivationand safety), all people want to realize when predicting how they will perform andtheir potential—a process Maslow called feel in the workplace.“self-actualization.” Fulfilling these higher One very controversial and important earlyorders of needs relies upon the action of finding of SDT research was that whenintrinsic motivators—those arising from people are offered contingent monetarywithin the employees themselves. Developing the 21st century workforce TM
  2. 2. rewards for doing activities they already find interesting, Internalizing Motivationthey lose intrinsic motivation for those activities. By 1999, Providing support for basic psychological need satisfactionmore than 120 studies confirmed that indeed there is strong also facilitates the process of internalization toward greaterevidence for the paradoxical negative effect of contingent autonomous motivation, which is associated with high-extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. quality behavioral persistence and performance—as well as physical, psychological, and social wellness—in theAre Rewards Harmful? workplace and other areas of life. However, employeesNo, extrinsic rewards do not always undermine intrinsic perform work-related tasks for a variety of reasons.motivation and are, at times, appropriate. However, great Some complete their daily tasks quite willingly and withcare should be given so they are not used to motivate or experiences of interest, excitement, enjoyment, andcontrol behavior, thus achieving an unintentional negative satisfaction, while others feel pressured or forced to doeffect. This occurs because extrinsic rewards have a strong those tasks.tendency to make employees dependent on the rewards.And since research has shown that autonomous motivation How employees approach given tasks depends on manyis more likely than controlled motivation to promote factors. Importantly, leaders cannot force their employeesflexible thinking, high-quality learning, and problem to internalize their motivation. They can, however,solving, employees are more effective and they experience contribute to their employees’ workplace success bygreater satisfaction at work when extrinsic rewards are providing an environment and facilitating certain behaviorsminimized in favor of fostering employees’ intrinsic that allow employees to satisfy their needs for competence,motivation. relatedness, and autonomy, thus promoting optimal motivation and functioning at work.The Three Basic Psychological NeedsExamination of the research shows that when three basic For more information on self-determination theory andand universal psychological needs are supported, employee workplace motivation, visit and productivity rises. When these needs arethwarted, healthy functioning plummets. This has broadimplications for the workplace. These three needs are:• Competence – People’s experience of being effective and mastering their social and physical environment.• Relatedness – People’s experience of close, meaningful, and mutually supportive connections with important others.• Autonomy – People’s sense that their behavior is volitional, performed willingly, reflectively self-endorsed, and experienced as chosen. About AchieveGlobal In the 21st century, the level of human skills will determineConsiderable empirical research indicates that employees organization success. AchieveGlobal provides exceptionalwhose leaders provide support for competence, relatedness, development in interpersonal business skills, givingand autonomy experience higher levels of well-being, trust companies the workforce they need for business the organization, engagement and satisfaction at work, Located in over 40 countries, we offer multi-language,and performance in the workplace. learning-based solutions—globally, regionally, and locally. World Headquarters 8875 Hidden River Parkway, Suite 400 Developing the 21st Tampa, Florida 33637 USA century workforceTM Toll Free: 800.456.9390© 2011 AchieveGlobal, Inc. M01399 v. 1.0 (12/2011)