revisiting self-determination theory

Self-determination theory states that there are three universal human drivers — autonomy, competence, and relatedness. We need some control over our lives, we want to be good at something, and we want to feel that we can relate to other people. These three drivers are what make us do what we do. Skills are just one aspect of being engaged at work. Even highly competent skilled workers can be disengaged or aimless.

One effect of the network era, and its pervasive digital connections, is that networks are replacing or subverting more traditional hierarchies. Three aspects of this effect are — access to almost unlimited information, the ability for almost anyone to self-publish, and limitless opportunities for ridiculously easy group-forming.

Clay Shirky discussed this third aspect in Here Comes Everybody (2008).

“Ridiculously easy group-forming [coined by Seb Paquet] matters because the desire to be part of a group that shares, cooperates, or acts in concert is a basic human instinct that has always been constrained by transaction costs. Now that group-forming has gone from hard to ridiculously easy, we are seeing an explosion of experiments with new groups and new kinds of groups.”

This desire to relate is what drives people to support global social movements on one hand, and to take shelter in tribal identity politics on the other. In politics, social media extend participation but also make information manipulation by motivated interests much easier.

In the 2019 HBR article Why Employees Don’t Share Knowledge with Each Other the authors found three main reasons [research paper behind a paywall]. First, people share knowledge when they are autonomously motivated, and not directed to do so, or pressured by others. Second, cognitively demanding work is shared more frequently. Third, knowledge is shared best between equal peers and not with those who are dependent on the sharer.

While this research was done with 394 Australian workers at various locations, as well as 195 Chinese workers at one company, it is reflective of the research that developed self-determination theory conducted by Edward Deci and/or Richard Ryan from 1971 to 2018. The researchers cited in the HBR article observed people who were competent in their work and were autonomously motivated to share their knowledge. But the third component — relatedness — remained the key to sharing.

Only if the workers could relate with people — as peers — would they freely share their knowledge. Autonomy and competence are not enough. Neither is the ‘sense of purpose’ that Dan Pink promoted in his book Drive. Relatedness is often the missing component to organizational knowledge sharing. Even the researchers were surprised.

“In addition to asking respondents about how they share and hide knowledge from their colleagues, we asked them if their colleagues depended on them to get their work done. We expected that if respondents perceived their colleagues to be dependent on them, they would be more willing to share knowledge and less likely to hide it.

Much to our surprise, we found the opposite. When people perceived that others depended on them, they felt pressured into sharing knowledge (the controlled type of motivation), and this in turn promoted knowledge hiding.” —HBR 2019-07-19

The historical role of management has been to reduce transaction costs in getting work done. A networked organization based on the compass of self-determination theory needs minimal management. It has the capability of sharing power between people and working together as the situation requires. This reflects the wirearchy organizing principle developed 20 years ago — “a dynamic two-way flow of  power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology”. 

If organizations want to lower transaction costs through more and better knowledge-sharing they need to focus on how the workplace and its processes are designed, not individual competencies. The focus has to be on — understanding work systems.

“Over the long haul, even strong people can’t compensate for a weak process. Sure, some occasional success may come from team or individual heroics. But if you pit a good performer against a bad system, the system will win almost every time.”Rummler & Brache

Managers and executives have to understand that — knowledge flows at the speed of trust. When trust is lost, knowledge fails to flow. This happens in organizations. It also happens at a societal level. Networks of trust are what create value at all levels for human society. If at any point a manager/executive/politician wonders why a person is aimless, disengaged, or ineffective, then reflect upon self-determination theory.

Self-determination theory is based on three universal human drivers — autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Lacking autonomy, we are disengaged. Lacking competence we are ineffective. Lacking Relatedness we are aimless.

Self-determination theory is based on three universal human drivers — autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Lacking autonomy, we are disengaged. Lacking competence we are ineffective. Lacking relatedness we are aimless.


7 Responses to “revisiting self-determination theory”

  1. Helen Blunden

    It’s true. It all stems on trust. I do wonder how the last couple of years has impacted this aspect in organisations. Has it increased or worsened? Only on my experience it has lessened however, that’s only mine. It may be different to others who may work for organisations who value these three aspects and nurture them for their people and systems as they are all linked to each other.

    • Harold Jarche

      I have only seen higher levels of trust in small organizations. In large orgs there may be trust in teams or departments but not across the board.

  2. Shaun Coffey

    I am witnessing an organisation starting to close down communication/information flow that appears to flow from (i) a lack of trust in others to do their jobs – working from home they can’t observe others, so make assumptions, and (ii) a sense that people are disconnected from the blended workspace – they are either in a digital space, or the physical space – but are not doing anything to understand the operation of the new blended mode.

    The autonomy, mastery/competency, relatedness framework is a very useful model to start useful conversations in this space.

    We have a lot to learn yet about how self-determination plays out in the new “normals
    “ – the plural is intended.

    Lovely post Harold.

    • Harold Jarche

      Deci & Ryan’s SDT is the first hyperlink in this post. Also note the reference at the bottom of the image:

      Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (1991). A motivational approach to self: Integration in personality.
      In R. Dienstbier (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation: Vol. 38. Perspectives on motivation (pp. 237–288). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

      It’s always best to read first, and criticize later.


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