You probably know what it’s like to have a bad boss. You might even know what it’s like to be one. Certainly at work (and if life) nobody likes a micromanager, but a boss who can’t be bothered to actually lead the team or check-in with their direct reports is just as bad.
Whether you manage people at work, or are just managing your relationships, you don’t need to fall into one of these two traps. You can take a few notes from the field of psychology and create an environment that allows the people who look to you for guidance and support to flourish, with a little help from self-determination theory.
What is self-determination theory?
Self-determination theory (SDT) was first posited and popularised by the psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, who studied the science of human motivation in the 1970s and 1980s. Basically, they determined humans are naturally inclined to gravitate toward personal growth — whether that means meeting a goal, earning an award, or mastering a skill — and there are three motivating principles that can encourage, facilitate, or inspire them to make that happen.
As noted by the talent acquisition firm GQR, these pillars of self-determination theory include:
Competence – The need to experience our behaviours as effectively enacted (to feel like we’ve done a good job).
Autonomy – The need to experience behaviour as voluntary and “…reflectively self-endorsed” (to feel like we have control over what we do).
Relatedness – The need to “…interact, be connected to, and experience caring for others” (to have meaningful relationships and interactions with other people).
Or, put another way, the theory states that our intrinsic desire for progress can be stoked by external factors. Here’s how the American Psychological Association defines the process:
Self-Determination Theory indicates that intrinsic motivation (doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable), and thus higher quality learning, flourishes in contexts that satisfy human needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
Many studies have demonstrated the positive outcomes of reinforcing competence, autonomy, and relatedness in educational and work settings. It takes some understanding and effort, but it’s something bosses can use to get the best out of their employees — or that anyone can use to help their friends, family, and coworkers excel.
How to use SDT to help those around you
Think of the foundations of SDT like guideposts. While everyone develops their own management or motivational style through time and experience, SDT can help you form more nurturing — but not hand-holding — relationships.
Management consultant Amy Drader explains for Growth Partners how someone in a leadership position can take advantage of SDT. If you give positive feedback when it’s deserved, you create an incentive for someone to keep doing what they’re doing — provided they’re doing it well. Setting goals is another useful metric to foster motivation, especially when goals are celebrated after they’re met. Of course, too much of a focus on reaching goals can sap motivation and dull the creative spark, but making rewards tangible and achievable can further fuel motivation.
It’s important for a person in a position of leadership (whether in a formal setting or not) to foster a sense of relatability — and one way to do that, Drader writes, is to normalize complaining. Don’t encourage wallowing, obviously, but recognise that venting can be cathartic. She notes: “Allow time to complain. Make sure it does not get excessive. Some complaining can be useful.”In practical terms, this might look like a happy hour where you commiserate over certain workplace issues. Or, just occasionally talking and joking around with people in your professional orbit will be endearing, and further promote that idea of relatability.
On another level, autonomy can be cultivated in a few ways — namely, when workers are listened to (and allowed to solve problems on their own). As Deci and Ryan wrote way back in 1987, “[t]he primary focus of autonomy is on people’s need to be volitional and self-initiate their own actions, rather than be controlled and directed by others.” You can further stoke this fire by showing a sense of trust in those you’re trying to motivate. At work, give someone who you want to encourage a shot by placing them in charge of a larger project than they might feel ready to take on, and shower them with praise — privately and in front of others — when it’s done. Outside the confines of work, this might involve assigning a kid or family member an important household task, providing guidance and support as they work to accomplish it, and rewarding them in a creative way once the job is done — even if it might not have been done perfectly.
Encouraging a sense of trust, camaraderie, and validation doesn’t boil down to a secret formula, but rather a set of human qualities that should serve you well in the workplace and beyond.