Engaged employees are critical to the success of an organization. When employees feel valued for what they contribute and are able to use their strengths every day, they are more likely to stay motivated at work. Beyond tapping into strengths and unlocking them, however, self-determination theory also plays a significant role in employee motivation and contribution.

Self-determination theory states that “people are motivated when they can determine for themselves what to work on and how to work on it.” While it’s common practice for employers to use incentives to help employees stay motivated at work, it’s been argued that this practice demotivates workers because it takes away their power of choice. Self-determination theory suggests that three main drivers lead to higher motivation and are more effective at helping your team stay motivated at work. 

Autonomy

Simply put, autonomy reflects how much control someone has over their own life. In the realm of work, this includes employees choosing what they work on and how they work on it. Employers have been forced to rely on autonomous workers over the past year as work shifted into the remote and hybrid spaces, which has been uncomfortable for some organizations but freeing for employees. The future of work will be impacted by this tension and how companies handle their concerns about productivity while maintaining autonomy for employees. 

To stay motivated at work, employees need to feel supported by their manager but not micromanaged. The shift from manager to coach requires a focus on asking questions instead of giving advice. Leave room for the possibility that an employee may have an innovative solution or approach to a problem. When they are given the chance to execute their vision they will stay motivated at work and increase their self-efficacy. 

Competence

One of the natural human drivers of behaviors is to experience mastery. Feeling like progress is being made toward success or mastery propels advancement. When an employee can track their progress or is recognized for their success, they stay motivated at work. 

As with autonomy, the manager plays the biggest role in whether or not an employee experiences competence at work. If an employee is undermined or criticized for their work, they will fail to build confidence or mastery in their role. Worse, ignored employers are the least engaged at work. On the other hand, Gallup reports that “employees who feel engaged at work and who can use their strengths in their jobs are more productive and profitable and have higher quality work.” Competence leads to engagement and prompts employees to stay motivated at work. 

Relatedness 

The relatedness principle refers to how connected employees feel to others in their workplace. The strength of their relationships matter and will help them stay motivated at work. Gallup reports that women who have a best friend at work “are more than twice as likely to be engaged (63%) compared with the women who say otherwise (29%).” The power of community shows up in these higher levels of engagement and motivation. 

Relatedness is also about connecting employees to the mission of the organization. Strong cultures and a strong organizational purpose that helps an employee understand why their work matters will lead to more employees who are motivated at work. Knowing that their individual and team contributions matter is key to increased retention and performance. 

Self-determination theory provides important information for employers to help their employees  stay motivated at work. What else have you learned about motivation and retention in the workplace?