Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Scott Rigby

Self-determination theory: What makes workers WANT to come to work?

by James Porter February 16, 2023

When I heard Dr. Scott Rigby speak two years ago, I felt like I was hearing a new voice in the crowded space of how to engage and motivate workers. When you first hear him talk about Self Determination Theory it sounds BOTH intuitive and counterintuitive. It’s intuitive when he says that employers need to pay more attention to things like autonomy, relatedness (feeling as an employee like what I do matters) and competence. But it feels counterintuitive when he talks about how compensation is not the driving force behind what truly motivates an employee.

I’ve been speaking about giving workers more autonomy ever since I discovered the demand and control model developed by Dr. Robert Karacek. This model, which has spawned dozens of peer-reviewed studies, has shown that low wage workers who work in jobs with high demands and low control experience greater unhappiness at work, lack of engagement and poorer health.

2 Dimensional

But the interesting part about this graph is that high demands are not associated with high stress, health problems or lack of engagement when those high demands are coupled with high levels of control. Having an internal locus of control (feeling like you are in the driver’s seat of your life) has always been associated with lower levels of stress and consequently better health. Having an external locus of control (feeling like someone else is in the driver’s seat of your life) has always been associated with higher levels of stress.

Typically, workers at the bottom of the pay scale are not given much control over what they do and how they spend their time. But if they were, the hypothesis laid out by this graphic is that their overall health and well-being might be radically different. And the research around Self-Determination Theory seems to bear this out.  Giving workers more autonomy over what they do costs almost NOTHING and yet it has the potential to lower stress, improve engagement, increase productivity and decrease turnover.

But there’s more to self-determination theory than just giving workers more control. There’s also the concepts of relatedness and self-mastery. Relatedness is about how workers relate to their boss and the organization they work for. They want to feel like what they do matters. According to The book Well Being, published by the Gallup organization, workers who answer yes to the question of do they feel supported by their boss are more likely to be top performers, produce higher quality work, are less likely to get sick, are less likely to change jobs and are less likely to get injured on the job.

Dr. Rigby writes in a journal article entitled “Self-Determination Theory in Human Resource Development: New Developments and Practical Considerations,” that “managers play a crucial role in supporting and facilitating basic need satisfaction” of their employees. For years corporations have rallied around the goal of “putting the customer first.” But it seems that the highest performing companies put the needs of the employee first and that in turn leads to high customer satisfaction AND reduced employee turnover.

On average, it costs organizations 150% of an employee’s annual salary to replace that employee if he or she quits, gets laid off, or leaves for any reason. So we start to see that the ROI on self-determination theory, is a very real prospect.

The third element of self-determination theory is competence or mastery. As Rigby writes in the journal article: competence “is our basic need to feel effective, to be successful, and to grow.” Rigby continues: “To deeply engage workers, it’s not enough to ensure that they can master their current workflow. People want to continually stretch their abilities in manageable ways that gives them a feeling of growth toward career goals.”

Helping workers to grow and giving them just the right mix of encouragement and training goes back to the importance of having a supportive supervisor. That supervisor must know that what challenges one worker might overwhelm another. In future installments, we’ll talk more about being a supportive supervisor, and how to determine just the right amount of challenge for each worker.  We’ll also talk about intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards (and which is better), high quality motivation vs. low quality motivation as well as how the connection between salary and motivation isn’t nearly as strong as you would think.

James Porter
James Porter