Management Self-Determination Theory for Work Motivation
Jane X.Y. Chong, Marylène Gagné
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0182


Motivation is defined by Craig Pinder, in Work Motivation in Organizational Behavior (1998), as “a set of energetic forces that originates both within as well as beyond an individual’s being, to initiate work-related behavior, and to determine its form, direction, intensity, and duration.” It is at the heart of management and organizational behavior, as it plays an important role in both organizational and employee outcomes, such as organizational performance and personal well-being. Initially developed by psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, self-determination theory (SDT) has evolved gradually over the last few decades to become a leading theory of human motivation. Applied SDT research has flourished in many areas of psychology, such as education, sports, exercise and health, and, more recently, organizational psychology and management. At its core, SDT uses the classic concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. However, through rigorous research into people’s reasons for engaging in different activities, SDT has evolved these concepts to propose a more meaningful multidimensional conceptualization of motivation that distinguishes between autonomous motivation and controlled motivation. Autonomous motivation is characterized by a sense of choice and volition, whereas controlled motivation is grounded in a sense of pressure and having to engage in a certain behavior. Importantly, a key proposition of SDT is that individuals have deeply evolved psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When these needs are satisfied at work, either through the job itself, work climate, or interactions with colleagues and managers, employees tend to have more autonomous, high-quality motivation and greater well-being. In contrast, when these psychological needs are frustrated or thwarted, employees are prompted toward more controlled forms of motivation and, subsequently, more symptoms of ill-being and diminished performance at work. Grounded in this theoretical framework, researchers have been able to examine social-contextual factors that contribute to or jeopardize employees’ quality of motivation and related outcomes. Autonomy support, leadership, work design, and compensation systems are examples of such contextual factors that have generated considerable attention in this field and are further elaborated in this article.

General Overviews

This section features resources that may be regarded as highly influential discussions of the field. The seminal article Ryan and Deci 2000, as well a more recent book, Ryan and Deci 2017, provides an excellent start to understanding the theoretical grounds and overview of the theory. To understand work motivation through the lens of SDT, Gagné and Deci 2005 provides a conceptual discussion of the theory within management and organizations, while a more recent edited book, Gagné 2014, also highlights exciting research that has been and is being conducted in this field. The Center for Self-Determination Theory website also hosts a range of useful resources related to the theory and research conducted across a variety of domains, including work.

  • Center for Self-Determination Theory.

    This official website of the Center for Self-Determination Theory hosts a range of resources related to the theory, including published research studies and metrics measuring the theory’s constructs across many settings (including work).

  • Deci, Edward L., Anja H. Olafsen, and Richard M. Ryan. “Self-Determination Theory in Work Organizations: The State of a Science.” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior 4 (2017): 19–43.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032516-113108

    The authors reviewed SDT research in work organizations, guided by a model in which workplace context (need supporting and thwarting) and individual differences (causality orientations and goals) influence work behaviors and employee wellness via the satisfaction of basic psychological needs and motivation regulations.

  • Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci. “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.” American Psychologist 55.1 (2000): 68–78.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68

    Penned by the cofounders of SDT, this seminal article discusses key components of SDT, including intrinsic motivation, self-regulation of extrinsic motivation, and psychological needs.

  • Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci. Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. New York: Guilford, 2017.

    This volume provides a systematic review of the theory’s conceptual underpinnings, empirical evidence base, and practical applications across the life span. SDT’s six mini-theories and their theoretical implications are also described in this work.

  • Gagné, Marylène, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Work Engagement, Motivation, and Self-Determination Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    This book contains a collection of chapters authored by renowned self-determination theory and organizational psychology researchers, who highlight their research with the theory in the work domain, as well as their propositions of future research directions using SDT.

  • Gagné, Marylène, and Edward L. Deci. “Self-Determination Theory and Work Motivation.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 26.4 (2005): 331–362.

    DOI: 10.1002/job.322

    One of the most frequently downloaded and highly cited articles published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, this paper involves a concept discussion of SDT within management and organizations, and represents a key article linking this theory to the field.

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