Stop Trying to Motivate your Employees! (Self-Determination Theory at Work)

Most managers think that motivating employees is the #1 part of their job.  Or they make the distinction between managers, who attempt to get things done by delegating and motivating employees through incentives and discipline, and leaders, who create a compelling vision and motivate employees through empowerment and inspiration.  But everyone seems to feel that motivating employees is the critical aspect of any supervisory position.

If I think about my own work/career history, however, this theory of management does not really jibe with reality.  In most jobs that I have held, I was already motivated to perform well, before I ever even cracked open a training manual.  My manager had very little to do with it.  And I think most people are hard-wired this way.  (See Jim Collins talking about this here.)  Most of us want to be successful and we want to spend our work hours doing good work towards a meaningful pursuit.

Rather than thinking about how to motivate employees, managers should recognize that people show up to work motivated on day one, and think about eliminating the things they do that strip away motivation over time.  How is it that so many organizations hire winning employees and gradually turn them into apathetic zombies by the end of their first year on the job?

This theory of workplace motivation is consistent with a theory of human psychology known as “self-determination theory” (SDT), based on the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan.   Self-determination theory proposes that humans are inherently motivated.   We have natural tendencies to want to learn, grow, master our environments, and integrate new experiences into who we are (you’ll often hear me talk about “work/life integration” rather than “work/life balance”.)

According to SDT, these natural tendencies are a part of healthy human behavior, but they can be thwarted if certain psychological needs are not met.  The theory (and supporting research) show three “nutriments” that are required for healthy human functioning and motivation: autonomy, competence and relatedness.  If conditions don’t allow for these needs to be fulfilled, intrinsic motivation dies, much like the plant on my office desk when I forget to give it water and daylight.

So how can businesses and organizations ensure that these needs are being met in a way that encourages and facilitates their employees’ natural motivations to come to bear?  The best way to answer this question may be to look at examples of highly successful companies that are ensuring that the basic needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness are being met in their organizations:


Zappos has become famous for creating a culture that is filled with freedom of individual expression.   One of their core values is to hire workers that are “fun, and a little weird” to emphasize the importance of individuality.

Best Buy’s corporate employees work in a “Results Only Work Environment” ROWE.  This means nobody cares how, when, or where the employees work, only what they accomplish.

Similarly, Netflix announced it was allowing its corporate employees to take vacation whenever and as often as they want (as long as they deliver results,) adopting a strategy that IBM took a few years earlier.

Google introduced “20% time” allowing their workforce to spend one fifth of their time focused on whatever projects they want to work on (even if it is something beyond their job description.)

A page from the Valve handbook

Software company Valve says their employees get “100%” of their time to work on whatever they want.  Their new employee handbook went absolutely viral as an example of a new business model based on complete autonomy.  As an example, their employees’ desks have wheels so that people can sit wherever they want and work with (and next to) whomever they want.


Lululemon’s workplace culture is based on the idea of “goal setting.”  Employees are specifically trained and coached on how to accomplish goals (including their own personal ones unrelated to the business demands of the company.)

Zappos changed their entire hierarchy so they could break their career path into smaller steps.  They knew that employees would be happier with small promotions every six months than they would with big promotions every two years.  People need to feel a sense of progress.

According to Chip and Dan Heath in “The Myth of the Garage,” Hindustan Unilever expects senior managers to spend 30-40% of their time in grooming the people below them.  They also have executives change roles every two to three years so they are always learning different aspects of the business.


I was recently at an Apple Store when every employee in the store broke into a standing ovation for ten minutes to celebrate the transfer of one of their colleagues to a new store.  I don’t know how much of this was company policy, company culture, or just the unique dynamic of this particular employee leaving this particular store, but for her the “relatedness” score must have been through the roof as they all lined up to give her a hug and cheer her on for her next role.

Zappos (again!) sets up their company headquarters so there is only one ingress and egress—a way to force spontaneous interactions between employees.  They also forego the traditional password based logon into their computer system for one that quizzes employees on their ability to identify pictures of co-workers.  They track their employees’ ability to identify colleagues as an engagement measure for the whole company.

These examples highlight companies that, whether they are aware of it or not, are applying the principles of SDT to allow the intrinsic motivation of their workforce to come shining through.  Each of these companies happens to be highly successful, rated highly by both employees and customers.

If you have other examples of companies that are fostering autonomy, competence and relatedness, I would love to hear about them!


by Jeremy McCarthy

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Learn more about my online course on positive leadership here.


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9 Responses to Stop Trying to Motivate your Employees! (Self-Determination Theory at Work)

  1. Oz May 15, 2012 at 4:05 pm #

    Jeremy have you seen the research showing that autonomy only matters to people who value autonomy- give people who don’t like autonomy some autonomy and they report lower levels of satisfaction.

    The simplistic generalisationd you make aren’t helpful in the real world

  2. Jeremy McCarthy May 15, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    Oz, I haven’t seen that research but it doesn’t surprise me. I agree that this is not a binary characteristic (providing autonomy or not) but a question of finding the right balance. People need autonomy and control and I’m sure different people will do better on one end of the spectrum over another. While there are cultural differences between Western/individualist societies and Eastern/collectivist societies, I would say most individuals in the Western world do value autonomy and most businesses err far on the side of control. In the article, I’m mainly expressing the views of SDT (which has plenty of supporting research) but I feel pretty confident that most businesses in the U.S. would do well to think about how to give their workforce greater autonomy. On the other hand, a business like Valve, promoting 100% autonomy is likely to have problems with swinging too far in the other direction.

  3. Kathryn Stolle May 16, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

    Great post, Jeremy – thought provoking and stimulating! I’d just like to add that autonomy, STD – style, seems to work best within an established, sound structure or framework (which I would prefer over the notion of “control”). Even Tony Hsieh and his team have certain clear-cut ways of operating that extend to the entire team. When you are involved in a business where consistency of product, delivered within a specific timeframe, is your “bread and butter,” the extent of the autonomy a person/team member can exercise is somewhat limited. Obviously, I’m thinking of the spa world here. What is important is that the framework be positive, encouraging and co-operative rather than limiting, controlling and constricting. This encourages your team to step out and exercise individual autonomy with the certitude that their actions will be well-received by management and the rest of the team.

  4. Jeremy McCarthy May 16, 2012 at 11:46 pm #

    Thank you Kathryn, You have said it better than I. Control may have been a poor choice of words since it calls to mind a dictatorial relationship. I meant that the employees need to have a sense of control over their environment which often comes with clear boundaries and framework that they can work within. The problem is most businesses spend all of their time thinking about and managing this framework and forget to consider where is the space for people to play and craft their work in such a way that it becomes more personally fulfilling. I’m a big believer, for example (since you mentioned our beloved spa industry), in letting massage therapists deliver their treatments in their own personal way and not trying to prescribe a mandated protocol. There is a tradeoff here in consistency and so different businesses approach this differently. People go to McDonald’s because they know exactly what they are getting and don’t expect the kitchen staff to be experimenting with different kinds of burgers every time they go in. So it is, as you suggest, a matter of inserting autonomy into the framework.

  5. Amit Amin May 17, 2012 at 7:36 am #

    This has been 100% true for me – my first job out of college, I was armed with motivation. My first boss drained it away from me. My second boss was able to restore it somewhat, because he gave me much more autonomy (as I earned it), rewarded my competence (when I deserved it), and related to me much more. I suppose you are a good boss then 😉 ?

    It is encouraging; however, when you consider that as management styles swing, scenes like the ones you described above will become more common place.

  6. Jeremy McCarthy May 17, 2012 at 10:40 pm #

    Thanks Amit, I agree with you . . . the world is changing quickly!

  7. Lisa Sansom May 19, 2012 at 3:34 pm #

    When I look back on the most uncomfortable work situations I have been in, I can directly connect it to lack of autonomy (which is very high on my list of needs), even if some sort of self-perception of competence (high need) and relatedness (low need) were there. You think I’d learn by now… 🙂

    I like the notion that you expressed to “Oz” that these are not binary nutriments – they probably exist for each individual along a spectrum, and so that also speaks to personal / organizational culture fit within a workplace as well. One organization can’t possibly set the SDT model effectively in place for everyone – individuals need to be accountable to themselves for assessing fit and determining if they’re in (and adaptable to the workplace) or out.

  8. lucy October 27, 2012 at 5:43 pm #

    Hello! I found this article really interesting, and very much true. I believe that is good to have a boss who is a “role model” to the rest of the team and who lets people know how imporant they are and how important every single person is. It also depends on what kind of organization we are talking about. I will do the research soon and it will based on kindergarten’s management. In our system (I’m coming from Europe) leading of non-profit organization is really hard, because motivation is kinda low (limited finance, law, society…),so I wanted to get familiar with SDT. I understood it like people should become more openminded and respect eachother’s differences. I think these differencess will lead to creativity and improvement of work and eventually also the world.
    Jeremy, well done!


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