In this article, we’ll take a closer look at one of the most commonly used motivation theories in the workplace and explore how self-determination can be balanced with autonomy and alignment to organisational strategy.
Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a framework for understanding the factors that promote or undermine intrinsic motivation, which refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable rather than because of external rewards or pressure.
According to SDT, three basic psychological needs must be satisfied to foster intrinsic motivation: autonomy (having control over one’s own actions), competence (feeling capable and effective), and relatedness (feeling connected to others) (Ryan & Deci, 2020). When these needs are met, people are more likely to feel intrinsically motivated and engaged in their work.
In practice, employers can apply SDT principles by providing employees with opportunities to make choices, express creativity, and take on meaningful projects that align with their interests and values (autonomy); by offering training and support to help employees develop their skills and expertise (competence); and by fostering a sense of community and teamwork, and providing regular feedback and recognition (relatedness) (Deci et al., 2017).
Autonomy vs alignment
While some may wonder how to balance autonomy and alignment to overall strategy, it’s important to understand that autonomy and alignment are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can complement each other and enhance employee motivation, job satisfaction, and organisational performance.
To achieve this balance, employers can provide employees with a clear understanding of how their work contributes to the organisation’s overall strategy. When employees understand how their work fits into the big picture, they are more likely to feel a sense of purpose and alignment and can make informed choices about how to approach their work in a way that supports the overall goals of the organisation.
At the same time, employers can provide employees with a degree of autonomy in how they approach their work. This can be achieved by giving them the freedom to make decisions about how to carry out their tasks, providing opportunities for them to take on projects that align with their interests and skills, and empowering them to innovate and generate new ideas.
Here are some practical tips for balancing autonomy and alignment in the workplace:
- Clarify the overall strategy: Ensure that employees understand the organisation’s overall strategy and how their work contributes to it. This can be achieved through regular communication, setting clear goals and expectations, and providing context and feedback on how their work impacts the organisation.
- Provide autonomy within parameters: Provide employees with a degree of autonomy in how they approach their work while ensuring they understand their role’s parameters and expectations. This can be achieved through clearly defining job responsibilities and expectations and providing opportunities for employees to make decisions within their roles.
- Foster a culture of innovation: Encourage employees to generate new ideas and take calculated risks to support the organisation’s overall strategy. This can be achieved through providing resources and support for innovation, recognising and rewarding creative thinking, and creating a safe and supportive environment for employees to take risks.
- Empower employees to make choices: Provide employees with opportunities to make choices about their work, such as setting their own goals, determining their own work schedules, and selecting projects that align with their interests and skills. This can help to foster a sense of ownership and accountability for their work.
In summary, combining autonomy and alignment with overall strategy is essential for creating a motivated and engaged workforce. By providing employees with a clear understanding of the overall strategy and the autonomy to make decisions within their role, organisations can create a culture of innovation and creativity that supports both individual and organisational goals.
Deci, E. L., Olafsen, A. H., & Ryan, R. M. (2017). Self-determination theory in work organizations: The state of a science. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4, 19-43. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032516-113108
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61, 101860. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2020.101860