self-determination theory

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.

Self-Determination Theory

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.

In practice

Here are some practical tips for balancing autonomy and alignment in the workplace:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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.

Motivation is one of the key factors that drives employees to work towards achieving their goals in the workplace. In a competitive business environment, organisations constantly seek ways to motivate their employees to improve productivity and performance. Organisational psychologists play a critical role in designing and implementing motivational strategies that can drive employees to perform at their best. This article will discuss various types of motivation that an organisational psychologist may recommend in a workplace.

Motivation theories

  1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory: Maslow’s theory is one of the oldest and most well-known motivational theories. The theory proposes that humans have five basic needs: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. The theory suggests that these needs form a hierarchy, with the most basic needs at the bottom of the hierarchy and the most advanced needs at the top. The theory suggests that as lower-level needs are met, employees are motivated to move up the hierarchy to meet higher-level needs.
  2. Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory: Herzberg’s theory suggests that two types of factors affect motivation: hygiene factors and motivators. Hygiene factors are factors that do not lead to motivation, but their absence can lead to dissatisfaction. Examples of hygiene factors include salary, working conditions, and job security. On the other hand, motivators are factors that directly contribute to motivation. Examples of motivators include recognition, responsibility, and opportunities for growth and development.
  3. Self-Determination Theory: Self-determination theory proposes that people are naturally motivated to grow, develop, and achieve their goals. The theory suggests that individuals are motivated when they feel a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy refers to the need to have control over one’s own life, competence refers to the need to feel capable and effective, and relatedness refers to the need to feel connected to others.
  4. Expectancy Theory: Expectancy theory suggests that motivation is driven by the belief that effort leads to performance, performance leads to rewards, and rewards are valuable to the individual. The theory suggests that individuals are motivated when they believe that their effort will lead to good performance and that good performance will lead to valuable rewards.

Application of motivational theories

These motivational theories can be applied in a variety of ways in the workplace. For example, organisations can apply Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory by ensuring that their employees have access to basic physiological and safety needs such as adequate rest and comfortable working conditions. They can also provide opportunities for growth and development to help employees achieve their self-actualization needs.

Herzberg’s Two-Factor theory can be applied by ensuring that hygiene factors such as job security and salary are in place while also providing opportunities for recognition and responsibility to serve as motivators.

Self-determination theory can be applied by allowing employees to have more autonomy in their work, providing opportunities for skill-building and development, and creating a supportive work environment that fosters positive relationships.

Expectancy theory can be applied by setting clear performance expectations, providing resources and support to help employees achieve those expectations, and offering valuable and meaningful rewards.


One example of a company that has successfully applied motivational theories in their workplace is Google. Google provides its employees with a supportive work environment, ample opportunities for growth and development, and a range of benefits such as free meals and on-site healthcare. The company also encourages autonomy by allowing its employees to work on projects that interest them, and recognises their achievements through its “Peer Bonus” program.

Another example is Zappos, an online shoe and clothing retailer. Zappos offers regular feedback, encourages autonomy and provides opportunities for growth and development by allowing its employees to take on new roles and responsibilities.