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Autonomy, competence, & relatedness: the secret to work engagement Zen

Autonomy, competence, & relatedness: the secret to work engagement Zen

Employee engagement is the not-so-secret ingredient to a thriving workplace – essential for increasing profitability, boosting retention and supporting productivity. As something that exists on a scale in constant flux, work engagement requires ongoing management. Sadly, there is no single thing we can do to guarantee it, but there are three underlying factors we can continually target. These are autonomy, competence and relatedness – the basic psychological needs which form the backbone of the Self-Determination Theory. Here are just a few ways you can satisfy each to achieve work engagement Zen.

What is Self-Determination Theory?

You may have seen “self-determination” used in the context of governments or cultural groups, but the version we’re dealing with relates to individual psychology. Put very simply, Self-Determination Theory is about being able to make your own choices and have control over your life. It forms a super important part of our wellbeing. We all naturally want to feel like we’re in the driving seat of our own life. So, unsurprisingly, when we feel out of control of our destiny, we can quickly experience stress and anxiety.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) suggests there are effectively two main types of motivation – intrinsic and extrinsic. While both of these help dictate who we are as people and how we act, they’re very different. Extrinsic motivation is an urge to act a certain way due to external sources, for external rewards – like working in order to achieve a reward or recognition. Intrinsic motivation, conversely, comes from within – it is driven by engagement with our fundamental principles, interests and personal ethics.

While people often turn to extrinsic motivation to boost engagement, intrinsic motivation is usually far more effective and enduring. While it’s natural to want to receive recognition for our work (and few people will say no to a raise!) true engagement requires the satisfaction of these three basic psychological needs:

  • Autonomy – to feel like we’re in charge of our lives;
  • Competence – to feel skilled and that we’ve achieved something;
  • Relatedness – to feel as though we belong.

Recognizing and understanding these three basic needs is one of the most important steps any workplace can take to boost engagement. But how do you go beyond good intentions to actually fulfill each one?

How to improve autonomy

Our psychological need for autonomy can be realized by allowing employees to make their own decisions on how, when and where they work – effectively, helping them become masters of their work. This can be achieved through:

  • Self-management: let employees create their own schedule, develop and their work, and actively shape the course of the projects they’re involved in.
  • Flexible hours: trust that people actually know how they work best. People with later chronotypes will struggle fitting into an inflexible 9-5, and similarly others might want to crack on even earlier in the day. Give people the freedom and flexibility to determine when and how they work.
  • Personalized space: allow employees the freedom to adapt their environment to fit their needs – whether that means working remotely for some of the week, moving work outside the office on certain afternoons or relocating to a different part of the office. Try and provide a variety of environments within your office for employees to flexibly move between.

How to improve competence

Supportive work environments will naturally bring out the best in people. You can satisfy the psychological need to feel competent by providing ongoing feedback, recognizing achievement and offering employees new challenges. For starters, try:

  • Giving meaningful recognition: when someone excels, take the time to personally thank them – and do this publicly, where appropriate. If someone improves, let them know you’ve noticed; no one wants their efforts to exist in a vacuum.
  • Provide ongoing development opportunities: regular productive flow requires regular challenge. Give people the tools to improve a skill or learn new ones through training, advice, and opportunities to lead and teach others. Encourage mentoring throughout your team.
  • Create a safe space for learning: ensure employees have the chance to innovate, test theories and explore without pressure or judgement. Having the room to regularly be creative and engage self-directed learning goes a tremendously long way.

How to improve relatedness

Relatedness – otherwise known as connectivity – is a vital part of work engagement. We humans are social animals, and forming strong relationships is important for our wellbeing – as well as being a key ingredient to successful collaboration. Being part of a community makes us happy, and studies show happy team members are more engaged. You can improve relatedness by ensuring employees:

  • Feel safe to take risks: never overlook the importance of psychological safety at work. We need to feel like we can tell people if we make a mistake, and not have to worry about being punished or humiliated. Mistakes form an important part of collective learning!
  • Are able to speak their mind: while the fun of group outings and team building exercises has its place, successful work relationships are built on substance. Be a compassionate leader by creating regular opportunities for feedback and encouraging employees to speak candidly. Feeling you can count on people is a powerful way to connect.
  • Have common goals as a team: relatedness is about self-identifying as a team. Regular group goal setting and reflection are great way to ensure everyone has a united sense of purpose and direction. Everyone should know where their work fits into the bigger picture, so that everyone pulls together and recognizes the value of their contribution.
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