Self Determination Theory

Self Determination Theory – by researchers Deci & Ryan – investigates motivation, personalities and optimal functioning. Research shows that people have three basic psychological needs: competence, relations and autonomy. Competence is important for having a feeling of control over actions and the influence these actions have on the external environment. Having productive relations is about relevant relations with other people and the feeling of belonging. Autonomy is about the extent people can exert free will in executing actions and tasks, so people can ensure they match their own interests and values.

These basic psychological needs can be seen as essential conditions for optimal performance. The reverse is also true: if these basic needs have not been met, this will have a negative impact on performance and well-being. In the CARE model, Competence can be linked to the focus area “Resilience“, Autonomy can be linked to “Empowerment” and Relations can be linked to “Completeness“.

Autonomy: the extent to which somebody has freedom to perform a certain activity at his or her own discretion and to which somebody has influence on what he or she does. Autonomy is the perception that one can determine one’s own behaviour and that one can match this with one’s own interests and values. Autonomy is not the same as independance.

Competence: a sense of competence indicates that somebody has confidence in his or her own capabilities. Important is a sense of learning and self-development and a feeling of self-efficacy (see also Research into Positive Workplaces). An important factor that contributes to competece is positive feedback on performance.

Relations: having positive relations contributes to a sense of social connectedness. A positive work atmosphere and trusting one another are important here. In a positive working environment, people feel free to ask questions and are not afraid to make mistakes. It also helps if the relevant actors lead by example and show constructive and positive behaviour.

Research in the Self Determination Theory movement shows that a working environment (and management style) that promotes autonomy, increase employees’ performance. In such a working environment the focus has shifted from “having the right person in the right position” to “creating the right working environment for everyone”. Research by Baard, Deci and Ryan (2000) in companies providing business services showed a positive relation between productivity, a sense of autonomy and a management style that promotes autonomy.​


Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.​