Employee Engagement: Leveraging the Science of Motivation

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2 min read

May 23, 2023

By Chiara Brega. The article was originally published in LifeSci Search on May 29, 2022: https://lifescisearch.com/employee-engagement-leveraging-the-science-of-motivation/

In February, I offered some general strategic considerations for corporate leaders facing the complex realities of a permanently hybrid workforce. That piece took a bird’s-eye view of the core elements of employee motivation as laid out in Self-Determination Theory (SDT). SDT itself is a widely accepted theory of engagement that underlies many leading approaches in management and leadership. I want to take some time this month to build on our earlier piece with a slightly more in-depth look at the theory’s components – this time from an operational perspective. 

Support and Fulfilment

Employee motivation is a surprisingly close relative of psychological constructs like “life satisfaction” and “overall well-being,” differing primarily in its localization to the workplace. Engagement metrics don’t just measure the consistency of focus or potential for productivity, they assess whether the work environment is one where employees are happy, comfortable, and relatively unburdened by external stressors. 

SDT breaks that general state down in several ways. One is its set of “core psychological needs,” the psychological and emotional ingredients of motivated, high-functioning employees. Autonomy is our basic need to personally value and endorse what we’re doing. Mastery is feeling effective and successful in our day-to-day work, as well as feeling that we are growing in our skills and capabilities. Relatedness is the empathetic connection with other members of our workplace community – the feeling that our colleagues care about our wellbeing. 

Together, these elements are the difference between autonomous and controlled motivation in SDT. If our needs are met, we self-start on our responsibilities, actively seek opportunities to improve and invest our best effort because we genuinely care about the quality of our work. The result is a substantial improvement in productivity, across industries and corporate structures. When our needs are not met – and motivation is instead sought or fulfilled through external means like guilt, shame, empty praise, direct rewards, or threats – we disengage mentally and emotionally, and those external pressures become the only reason we show up to work. While this can be effective in the short term, it quickly leads to loss of interest, low productivity, burnout, and churn. 

From a management or leadership perspective, SDT offers another set of concepts that are just as important as the core needs. The difference between support and fulfillment is the line between what team leads and corporate heads can and cannot change. Fulfillment – the actualization of the feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness – falls largely on the individual. Support is in the hands of the company. It is a question of work culture, leadership style, growth opportunities, workflows, expectations, and how success is evaluated.  

Skilled, experienced leaders may have an intuitive sense of how to support autonomy, mastery, and relatedness in their companies. It can still be helpful, though, to list the critical components of support for each basic need, as they can help guide both high-level and day-to-day decision-making around operations and the use of resources, especially in HR. 

Practical guidelines for supporting basic needs

Drawing on the relevant literature and input from our clients, I’ve put together a list of the most essential aspects of supporting the core psychological needs of employees. 

The most complex and best-studied of these is autonomy. Because autonomy is about employee buy-in, there is a limit to how directly managers and executives can support it. As a general principle, however, it helps to understand prioritize employee perspectives, not through dashboards or feedback forms, but through plain, old-fashioned face-to-face empathy. Make your management decisions based on their feelings and needs. In addition, leaders hoping to support autonomy should encourage self-initiation of tasks, create chances for workers to make their own choices and help shape projects. Err on the side of informality rather than formality to encourage honesty, and – critically – avoid attaching rewards or punishments to specific outcomes. Your goal should be to avoid making employees feel controlled or pressured, allowing them instead to contribute meaningfully.

Supporting mastery is somewhat simpler. We also have an innate desire to be good at what we do, so the work of a manager here is, essentially, to create pathways for growth and then get out of the way. Feedback needs to be honest so that jobs well done are recognized and poor work is acknowledged and framed as a chance to do better. Focus on instructive feedback rather than evaluation, and try to match the difficulty of tasks to employee capabilities as close as possible. Finally, invest resources in opportunities for upskilling and professional development along lines that employees value, and make these avenues for advancement clear. 

Relatedness is the need that can be fulfilled in the broadest number of ways. At its core, what this employee need requires of managers is that they genuinely, visibly care about their colleagues, both offering support of all kinds and accepting it in turn. It can help, for instance, to acknowledge negative feelings honestly. One-on-one meetings, especially informal ones that include non-productive time to chat, can be very helpful. More generally, respect workers’ time and effort, as well as their health and their achievements outside the office.

The guidelines I’ve just listed are a bare minimum, of course. They’re the baseline requirements for encouraging intrinsic motivation and high employee engagement.