Executive Coaching Connections, LLC

What’s the best way to motivate high performance in yourself and others?

Human motivation is an evergreen topic, with new ideas regularly offered by management and psychology theorists. Search on Google and you’ll find over 4 million results, over 1,200 books on Amazon.

One perspective that’s stood the test of time is Self-Determination Theory (SDT).

Based on research published 30 years ago by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, SDT is a theory of human motivation, personality development, and well-being. It remains highly relevant for today’s global leaders, according to Sunny Stout-Rostron, Ph.D. Stout-Rostron is a Global ECC Affiliate and the author of the 2014 book Leadership Coaching for Results: Cutting-Edge Practices for Coach and Client.

ECC recently sat down with Sunny to learn more about SDT, to discuss how she uses it in her coaching practice, and to understand how leaders and coaches can use it to build high-performing teams.


What is Self-Determination Theory (SDT)?

SDT is concerned with supporting our natural or intrinsic tendencies to behave in effective and healthy ways. Self-determined people experience a sense of freedom to do what is interesting, personally important, and vitalizing.

According to the theory, people have three intrinsic needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

  • Autonomy occurs when your behavior is aligned with your values and interests, and your actions at work are ‘self-endorsed’ (i.e. you believe in what you’re doing). According to Stout-Rostron, “You must be able to self-endorse.” Autonomy is also a core condition of one’s work as a coach or a leader – the work itself is aimed at helping people become autonomous.

  • Competence involves experiencing mastery. It’s what gives you a sense of personal effectiveness when you receive positive feedback on a job well done. As a coach or leader, you help people understand their competence when you point out what they do well – and what they don’t.

  • Relatedness refers to the need to be connected – to interact and engage with, and to care for others. Relatedness supports inclusion and empathy and creates a sense of belonging. An important part of a coach or leader’s role is to help people relate more effectively with those who challenge them the most.


SDT isn’t a new concept. Why is it still relevant for today’s global leaders?

Self-Determination Theory looks at two factors that are critical for developing talent – motivation and goals.

SDT researchers Deci and Ryan originally looked at intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is what matters most. According to Stout-Rostron, “What really motivates you has a connection to your well-being. If the key factors (autonomy, competence, relatedness) are present, they will work with your intrinsic motivation and you will thrive.”

Goals are closely connected to motivation. “If goals aren’t tied to intrinsic motivation, they will be harder to achieve. The same is true of rewards,” according to Stout-Rostron. No matter the extrinsic motivator (e.g. car, pay raise, change in title), if a reward isn’t tied to intrinsic motivation, it won’t motivate you.


How do you use SDT as a leadership coach?

Quoting Dr. Gordon Spence of the Sydney Business School, “Coaching is fundamentally concerned with the enhancement of human functioning,” according to Stout-Rostron. Coaching acknowledges and helps satisfy needs related to autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

When coaches and leaders encourage people to take ownership for and to develop their own expertise, they foster autonomy. According to Stout-Rostron, “Goals have to come from clients; they have to bring the issues to the table.”

Competence is an underlying assumption in coaching. “Coaching assumes people can achieve what they want to achieve,” according to Stout-Rostron. Coaches provide assessments and feedback to help clients understand where they use different competencies in their lives.

Regarding relatedness, coaches give attention and empathy. ‘Supportive challenging’ is an important part of what coaches and leaders provide.


How can leaders and coaches use SDT to support high performance in individuals and teams?

It starts with being aware that people have professional (i.e. ‘what the boss wants’) and personal development needs.

Leaders and coaches can support autonomy by taking the time to understand people’s perspectives, encouraging self-initiation and self-reflection, and offering meaningful choices. When you’re seeking behavior change, provide a rationale and minimize the use of controlling language or rewards.

You can support competence by designing activities so that mastery is the dominant experience. Provide structure for active development, and give informational feedback rather than controlling feedback. Focus praise on effort and specific accomplishments – not on ability or comparisons.

Relatedness supportive environments convey respect for the individual, ensuring people feel valued and significant. You can create a supportive environment by offering concern, especially when team members are facing challenges.

Foster high performance by creating environments that support autonomy, competence, and relatedness.


For more leadership and learning insights, follow us @ECC_Coaches and @StoutRostron.


Here is a great reasource to learn more about Self-Determination Theory.