Improving performance by increasing autonomous motivation

 Self-determination theory research 



Cognitive evaluation theory, which explains the effects of extrinsic motivators on intrinsic motivation, received some initial attention in the organizational literature. However, the simple dichotomy between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation made the theory difficult to apply to work settings. This article describes self-determination theory as a theory of work motivation.


According to the researchers, there is a simple dichotomy in the cognitive evaluation theory. Differentiating extrinsic motivation into types that differ in their degree of autonomy led the researchers to self-determination theory, which has received widespread attention in the education, health care, and sport domains.


This article describes self-determination theory as a theory of work motivation and shows its relevance to theories of organizational behavior.


Gagné, M. and Deci, E. L. (2005), Self-determination theory and work motivation. J. Organiz. Behav., 26: 331–362. doi:10.1002/job.322


Expert opinion Wilmar de Munnik: 


The results of this research are helpful to everyone who wants to gain insight in underlying job and task motivation of employees, and wants to improve their own contribution to this motivation in order to improve the performance of colleagues and departments.

The core of this research is the conception that there is no dichotomy between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation; instead, the nature of motivation fluctuates along a continuum. For  small and routine tasks, extrinsic motivation is fine, but if someone gets a complex task, he or she must be intrinsically motivated.

Mismatch in motivation

As a researcher and practioner I find the notion of alignment function and different types of motivation highly innovative. Three conditions for autonomous motivation are identified: a person must be and feel competent, he or she must be involved, and must have enough freedom in performing his or her tasks.

If there is a mismatch between the type of motivation triggered in an individual, and what he or she needs in relation to his or her role or task, it will lead to underperformance. This may be illustrated by the example of an architect with the complex task to design a house. The more rules, guidelines and procedures he receives, the more he is restricted in his creativity and the less surprising and original his design will be.

By understanding of, and varying in types of motivation, a manager should be able to bring out the best in people. Adjusting the type of motivation to the type of task at hand, can help managers to optimize the performance of their employees and departments, which is an important purpose of management control.


Improving performance 

My own experience as a manager confirms the assumption generated by this theory. In my department there are people who process task of little and high complexity. If I trouble all of them with discussions on how they must do their job, they could lose motivation because they get to feel that they are not trusted to solve the barriers that they may encounter. Making them feel competent and providing them autonomy was, just as the research suggests, a contributing factor for me to increase their autonomous motivation, and thereby their performance.

In conclusion: how to motivate people is a strongly context dependent problem. There are theories that say that there is no one true solution possible, but that only a combination of instruments is effective. Economic theories suggest that if someone gets enough extrinsic incentives he or she will subsequently get motivated, whereas more psychologically founded theories learn us that this is not necessarily true. I believe that in practice a synthesis may bring us the optimal result. Establishing conditions for autonomous motivation will improve task performance, will help to improve performance and creates economic benefits.





Edited by Eline Ammeraal 



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