Self-Determination Theory – The Energy of Action

By Dr. Joe Isbister

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) has made a significant impact to field of study of human motivation. SDT added a more multi-faceted understanding of motivation. This approach can be used to better understand yourself and others.

What is Self-Determination Theory?

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) grew out of the work of Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who first introduced their ideas in their 1985 book Self-Determination Theory about intrinsic motivation in human behaviour. At the time of this publication, there was a growing movement away from focusing just on extrinsic motivation. The external systems of reward or punishment and the ‘carrot and stick’ approach. It moved into acknowledging the powerful role that intrinsic motivation plays in human activity. Intrinsic motivation being all about doing an activity for its inherent satisfaction.

Intrinsic motivation is in us all

SDT begins with the assumption that intrinsic motivation exists in all of us. We all possess an innate curiosity, a need for growth and to overcome some challenges. How this is expressed, involves a complex interplay between these innate drives and social and cultural factors. It varies from individual to individual.

SDT also took a more nuanced look at motivation, not as a unitary concept (something that differs only in amount of behaviour), but rather by focusing more on the quality of a person’s behaviour. SDT brought a fuller, deeper understanding of motivation. It did this by studying the conditions and what is happening when people are, not just motivated, but at their most creative and experiencing positive emotions.

Specifically, SDT was able to build sound empirical evidence bases to highlight that intrinsic motivation rests upon an individual’s own experience of autonomy, competence and relatedness.

These aspects are described in more detail below:

Autonomy – People need to feel in control of their own behaviours and goals. They like to feel a direct sense of being able to take action that results in outcomes and real change. This plays a part in helping people to become self-determined.

Competence – The need for mastery of tasks. When people feel that they have the skills needed for success, they are more likely to take actions which will help them to achieve their goals.

Relatedness – The need to experience a sense of belonging and attachment to other people. Social interactions with others play a key role in initiating and sustaining actions.

Think about It …

Does this resonate with your own experiences? Think of one of your most happy memories… What comes to mind? Think closely about that moment. The chances are that there were probably the factors of autonomy, competence and relatedness at play. Perhaps, not all of them to the same degree, but they were all there in the mix in one way or another.

Equally, this thought experiment works when applied to a more negative experience. Which of these factors were not present?

The factors SDT advocates can also be used to understand why certain experiences in your life, which you may have expected to be happy, but you did not experience in that way. Why, perhaps too, an event that may have objectively been determined as stressful or traumatic, did not evoke those reactions in you.

Could SDT and the factors it advocates become a tool you could use ‘in-the-moment’? Could it help you to quickly understand why you may be experiencing a certain situation (either positively or negatively) in a particular way? Could it throw some light on your understanding and your feelings?

Here is Ed Deci, explaining Self-Determination Theory in his video.

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Ed Deci explains how SDT can be described as trying to capture the essence of ‘energy of action’ in the following ways:

  • How focusing on quality of motivation (rather than just quantity) is useful.
  • How autonomous (self-determined) motivation is consistently linked to better outcomes, including better creativity, problem-solving, performance, positive emotions and psychological wellness.
  • How this understanding works across different domains, including, education, healthcare, sports, business and families.

The Conditions for Energy of Action

Ed Deci offers a valuable take-home message. The message is that everyone is inherently intrinsically motivated and that they work best when they are self-determined.

Understanding how this uniquely works for them is the key to helping them access the best they can be. The vital question becomes: How can you as a leader, manager or coach create the conditions in which other people can motivate themselves in the workplace?

Ed Deci offers a valuable and simple insight into how to do just that. He advocates providing autonomy, support and empowerment. How do you do that? By firstly understanding the person’s frame of reference. What is at the core of their motivation? How does it play out in their current situation and within the systems that they are part of?

One way of exploring their intrinsic motivation is to conceptualise the three growth factors as cups. The cups of autonomy, support and empowerment.

This is a metaphor that resonates because it helps to conceptualise those 3 factors that SDT explains are so important and provides a simple method for mining their depths. It can explore the flavour and the fluidity of the energy and motivation. As well as how these different cups can be emptied and re-filled. It also covers how the different cups might also contain latent energy, waiting there to be utilised more.

Holding up a mirror

If you visually draw these cups out for someone, labelling each one appropriately, you can hold up this mirror. The conversation about the categories can produce valuable reflections and insights. The person can often see their own frame of reference more clearly and identify the subtle nuances embedded with it.

This is an exercise which can be used at a personal, group level or at a wider systems’ level. Often when people struggle with a situation, problems can seem intractable, complex, and hard to define. Using this SDT approach can support them in gaining a wider understanding of the factors influencing their intrinsic motivation and their well-being.

Determining which cups are currently full, semi-full or even empty, developing practical strategies to refill them, can release new energy and fresh intention. When filled, the conducive factors exist for people to resourcefully access more of their intrinsic energy of action. This then fuels action that is self-determined and potentially far more effective. Creating a positive outcome for the person concerned and for those around them.