Self-Determination Theory for Leaders and Managers

Self-Determination TheoryAlthough I’ve usually thought about motivation in terms of changing health behaviors, and often with a technology angle, the principles of motivation are actually well-applied in many different contexts. Take managing or leading people for an example: Motivation at work has the same ingredients as motivation for health, although the way those ingredients is manifested may look different.

To recap self-determination theory, a person feels more motivated when their three fundamental needs are supported. Those needs, autonomy, competence, and relatedness, could be simply stated for leaders. The people you are leading are asking themselves:

  • Do I matter?
  • Does my work make a difference?
  • Do I belong?

The more easily they can answer each of those questions with “yes,” the more their work is likely to be motivating for them.

Even though self-determination theory is relatively young, having first come about in the mid-1980s and coming into its prime in the early 2000s, it builds on older theories such as the Job Characteristics Model (Hackman & Oldham, 1985) and expectancy theory (Vroom, 1964). In particular, all of these theories claim that insight into the outcome of your work–feeling like your work has contributed to a goal–is a key part of motivation. Self-determination theory adds the component of relatedness, of also feeling like your work ties you to others in some way.

The ways that managers or leaders can help their people come to a “yes” answer to each of the questions above will vary by individual and by context. I plan to continue exploring what this might look like in future posts, but would also love your thoughts. How do you know when you matter, when your work makes a difference, and when you belong?


Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1975). Development of the job diagnostic survey. Journal of Applied Psychology, 60(2), 159.

Vroom, V. H. (1964). Work and Motivation. New York: John Willey & Sons.