A Blueprint for Team Performance and Employee Well-Being
Everyone benefits when managers provide for genuine choice and a sense of belonging in the workplace
A state of self-determination yields the full passion and whole-hearted efforts of people.
Unfortunately the majority of employees today say they are not satisfied at work — with loneliness, disengagement and burnout far too common. Sadly, we have to accept that many employees only feel alive and happy once they have left work for the day.
Thankfully though, there has never been as much management attention given towards the traditional goal of improving team performance, but also on how to enhance employee physical, mental, and social health. This article is for those who wish to understand the dominant scientific theory that promises to achieve both those goals — and thereby ensure our people are happy, healthy and satisfied whilst in the workplace too.
What I’m going to introduce you to is Self-Determination Theory (SDT). At the highest-level it proposes that enacting policies to foster supportive management, where employees are afforded space and choice, are confident in their skills, and have a sense of belonging, is not only justified from a moral perspective, but also leads to greater organisational benefits.
Figure 1 shows the core elements of SDT as applied to the work domain. This 40-year-old idea, first proposed by academic psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, has become the preeminent doctrine on workplace performance and well-being. Giving leaders a blueprint for successfully leading their teams, departments or organisations.
The model begins with employee aspiration and their differences in response to leadership support. SDT itself mediates between these employee inputs, and the outputs of organisational performance and employee well-being. It achieves these outcomes by ensuring someone’s Basic Psychological Needs are being met; and they are Autonomously Motivated towards a goal.
The payoffs for the organisation have been shown to be great. With increases in productivity, greater employee creativity, and lower burnout and turnover. Furthermore, the people who are managed this way, report they are more satisfied with their jobs, are more trusting of management and top-level leadership, and most importantly many would say, have improved work-family relationships.
I’m going to spend a few minutes breaking apart the concepts of Basic Psychological Needs and Autonomously Motivation for us. Then briefly discuss the relationships that exist between them. The final section is on how leaders can bring the understanding of SDT to their teams and organisations.
Basic Psychological Needs
SDT proposes that people have three basic psychological needs. Basic in that they are adapted (evolved) features of us all, and not learned. They are the need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Autonomy is synonymous with choice or volition (note, it is not the same as independence). The leader’s role is to set and monitor team boundaries that maximise the significance and number of choices that can be afforded to the team, whilst aligning those choices to the organisational goals and team context.
Competence (‘Mastery’ in Daniel Pink’s parlance) is akin to being in-flow at work, the goldilocks of states: just the right amount of pressure, and just inside your abilities. Employees derive a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem when in this sweet-spot. Well suited work-design, opportunities for learning & development, and positive recognition and acclaim, are the preferred managerial tools here.
Relatedness* is a sense of belonging when at work. It has been shown time-and-again to be crucial for optimal development and wellness. The concept of psychological safety is a well known toolset that goes some way to achieving this (Google’s excellent re:Work site contains thorough advice on how to promote this factor in teams).
To me, creating a safe space in the workplace still does not go far enough. A more recent and welcome trend is for leaders to foster a culture of friendship in the workplace which has great promise to improve relatedness.
*Those familiar with Daniel Pink’s Drive will recognise autonomy and competence, but not relatedness. Why did he leave off relatedness? My guess is he believed the corporate world in 2009 wasn’t accommodative to a model that actively promoted personal relationships in the workplace.
The second mediator is something called Autonomous Motivation.
If you do something just for the sake of it, because it is interesting and satisfying, this is called Intrinsic Motivation. On the other hand, Extrinsic Motivation, is doing something to obtain a reward or achieve an externally set goal.
Those who are intrinsically motivated typically are engaged with authenticity and vitality and bring their full passion and desire to it.
These concepts are well known. A vital and often overlooked aspect though, is Internalization. This is where extrinsically motivated activities can, under the right circumstances, be internalized to a point where they are acted on as if they were intrinsic. What this means in practice is people can internalize an organisation’s goals to take them on as their own (“I really believe in what we are doing here, it is going to make such a difference to people’s lives”). Internalization remains the ultimate goal of a leader: to convince others to take your goals as their own.
Any activity that has been internalised or is simply done for the love of it is grouped into Autonomous Motivation. The non-internalised extrinsic motivations (deadlines, conditional rewards, over-eager participation in decision making, managerial preference and biases) make up what is referred to as Controlled Motivation.
Relationship between Motivators and Psychological Satisfiers
Autonomous motivation and basic psychological needs are closely intertwined and indeed act as amplifiers.
The most important relationship is centred around ‘autonomy’. Controlling activities, for example, will demotivate people because it directly thwarts their basic psychological need for autonomy.
There are positive feedback cycles too, when employees feel a sense of belonging and relatedness to coworkers, the speed and strength of internalization of the organisation’s purpose is increased. The conclusion is that if you like your team and manager, you are more likely to buy-into what everyone else is doing.
The interrelationship extends also to reinforcement of each other, where motivation is amplified when people’s basic psychological needs are satisfied in the workplace, and vice-versa. This makes total sense. If you are treated respectfully and given space to succeed, and feel good at work (i.e. you have high levels of well-being), you’ll be more motivated to strive towards the company’s goals.
Put simply, focusing on employee well-being is good for business.
Role of the Leader
Striking the right balance with autonomy of decision making can be tricky, even for the most experienced. It is important to set the correct scope when delegating decision making rights to a team (delegation boards are a useful tool here). You need to strike a balance of wants for autonomy and the capabilities of the team, with the confidence that significant decisions will be surfaced to you. Intent-based leadership is a great technique for getting to this point.
Personally, I’ve seen most frequently — and fell foul to myself — where leaders with deep-technical backgrounds* have not learnt to step-back once they step-up, and they see a subsequent drop in autonomous motivation as a result.
*The more technical leader should take heed of Project Oxygen — a huge Google-sponsored research project. They found that technical expertise at Google ranked last among their big eight leadership qualities. No doubt, at play here, was the leader taking away a degree of autonomy from individuals.
Then there are times when a degree of Controlled Motivation can be more called for. Sometimes controlling activities and rewards are needed (say when a project needs to hit a legitimate deadline) or when you want a narrow employee focus on targeted outcomes (e.g. sales targets or unacceptable production incidents).
Keep the downside to Controlled Motivation in mind. Some fascinating research showed that when people are rewarded (read extrinsic) for doing something they once did for fun (that is intrinsic), it turns the play into work (or in one of my favourite turn-of-phrase it turns “origins into pawns”) with a resultant drop in engagement — consider that when you have growth conversations at the same time as a pay & promotion discussion (i.e. performance reviews).
Still, when innovation and creativity is desired, when passionate driven employees are a competitive advantage, leaders should look to learn from SDT.
Bringing SDT to your teams
That all said, managing Autonomously and meeting people’s Basic Psychological Needs would appear to be no-brainers. However, ask yourself, how much are you doing to measure, monitor and improve on feelings of belonging in the workplace?
The good news here for organisations is the variables involved are qualitative: you can simply survey your people to get a read. Take for example, these questions I anonymously survey my teams every fortnight:
- how much autonomy do you have over how you work and how you solve customer problems (Autonomy);
- are you being provided with everything to perform at your best e.g skills, tools, information, priority (Competence);
- do you feel psychologically safe in the team (Belonging);
- how are you currently feeling about your work and work-place (Well-Being);
- how fast is the team progressing right now (Performance).
The results are used to retro, course-correct, educate and facilitate changes to team social contracts.
At a larger scale, senior leaders should look to cascade desired behavioural attributes throughout their organisations — through recruitment, promotion and cultural norms — that align to the scientifically rigorous variables identified in SDT.
For those that want to encourage greater employee well-being and performance, you have a well researched blueprint in your hands for doing so. Good luck in implementing it, your employees will thank you for it!
Overwhelming evidence suggests that when managers are empowering (i.e. supportive of choice and learning) and coworkers were supportive of relatedness, employees are more motivated, more creative in their work, and are more happy, healthy and satisfied in their lives.
- Self-Determination Theory is the dominant model that achieves the dual goals of organisational performance and personal well-being
- There are two mediators involved, Autonomous Motivation and Basic Psychological Needs
- Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness are adapted basic psychological needs of all humans
- Intrinsic Motivation and Internalised Extrinsic Motivators make up Autonomous Motivation, where people revel in a task
- Activities that are Controlling may be suitable when you need to narrow focus and orient towards a specific target but come at a cost
- Act when employees indicate their needs are not being met, and cascade leadership attributes through the organisations to orient leaders to SDT
James is a Software Delivery Manager at SEEK, an online career and recruitment company based in Melbourne, Australia. He has spent a good part of his career leading cross-functional software development teams. And prior to that was a Software Architect and Engineer in London, Zurich and Melbourne. He has a Master in Computer Science and is in the process of completing an MBA.