Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Man in supplies closet checking inventory

Self determination theory. Part 2 The true value of a supportive supervisor.

by James Porter February 23, 2023

Last week we talked about self-determination theory (SDT) and how it contributes to a healthy workplace culture. There are three aspects to SDT: autonomy, relatedness and competence.

Autonomy is about giving workers more control over what they do. Relatedness is about fostering a good relationship between the employees, their bosses and the employer.  Competence is about giving workers the appropriate level of challenge to encourage learning and growth.

Giving workers more autonomy costs the employer little or nothing. Allowing employees the freedom to work remotely, giving them flexible work schedules and allowing them to have input into decision-making are all examples of simple changes that can be initiated to motivate and engage workers. Sometimes just the perception of having more control - which can be easily facilitated by a supportive boss – can help motivate an employee to do their best work.

Organizational psychologist, Dr. Leslie Hammer, teaches supervisors how to be more supportive and her work has been reported on in the Harvard Business Review. Her two-hour training for supervisors revolves around relatedness: Making workers feel like they matter. She tells managers to keep track of the supportive things they say and tells them how important it is to go to bat for their employees when personal matters conflict with their work schedules.

2 Dimensional Control Model

In the last installment we talked about the demand and control model which you see above. This graphic shows how when you give a worker more control over what they do, they experience less stress. When I was in graduate school, I worked as a night-watchman. As long as I stayed in that guardhouse, I could do anything I wanted (like my homework). It was a low-stress job with high levels of control. While for an employee working in a postal sorting center, where hundreds of letters fly by every few seconds, the demands are high, the control is low, and that can be very stressful.

To better understand the psychological impact of this model, imagine an office worker who oversees a supply cabinet. It’s his or her job to see that there are enough order forms, toner cartridges, reems of paper and whatever else is needed to keep the office up and running. But what if that worker must go through the purchasing department to get those supplies? Now you’ve given that worker a responsibility (i.e., a demand) without a requisite amount of CONTROL.

In this all-too common stress-inducing scenario, when supplies run low, the person supposedly “in charge” of the supply cabinet has no control over when the purchasing department obtains those supplies. This example helps us understand why demands must be offset by control.

But when you add a supportive boss into the mix you get this three-dimensional demand, control and support model. (See below.) Notice how a supportive boss plus autonomy gives rise to a HEALTHY workplace culture (as seen in the green trapezoid at the top of the diagram) even when demands are high. Creating a healthy workplace culture is not rocket science and getting these three elements right, goes a long way toward achieving this result.

James Porter
James Porter