Focusing on Three Psychological Needs
Effective leadership includes a wide range of leadership behaviors. Based on our work in leadership and team development, we are most interested in how effective leaders create a culture of engagement for their teams. The leaders we work with often need help in building a culture of engagement which, in turn, helps the organization be successful. Engagement can be defined as a positive state of mind in which individuals are dedicated, energized, and motivated to work.
There has been much research to connect engagement to productivity. Individuals who are more engaged are happier, more productive, and better employees (Deci & Ryan, 2002; Leiter & Baker, 2010). Even the most extraordinary leaders, however, are not able to control employee engagement for individuals. In other words, a leader cannot force someone else to feel and act engaged. Leaders can, however, create an environment that encourages others to feel engaged. Therefore, we believe that coaches have an important role to help leaders assess their effectiveness in how well they are able to create this culture of engagement.
Understanding the importance of creating a culture of engagement, we analyzed multiple ways that leaders could increase employee engagement. What we found from analyzing multiple leadership assessment tools and behaviors on the job was that there were common themes that emerged in the analysis. These themes closely resembled the three psychological needs (Ryan & Deci, 2017) identified in Self-Determination Theory (SDT). Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is well-respected, has generated a great deal of research and validation, and has held up across time, culture, and domains. As such, SDT is an excellent framework for us to incorporate into our approach to leadership effectiveness.
SDT is a theory of motivation, developed in the late 1980’s by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, that states individuals have three basic psychological needs, and when these needs are met, they are happier, more satisfied, and more productive. These three basic needs are described as:
- The need for relatedness. Relatedness is the sense of being connected to others. In our research we labeled this as feeling connected. We found in our experience that employees wanted to feel that they belonged to something bigger than themselves. They wanted to feel included in the larger team and connected to a greater purpose or mission and when they felt this, their level of engagement increased. From the Case Study, the leader definitely believed in building strong relationships and wanting the team members to feel connected. She did this by including the whole team in the decision-making process. Everyone had a role.
- The need for competence. Competence is the feeling of being capable. In our work with organizations, employees want to be acknowledged for their competence, skills and contributions. We labeled this category as feeling valued. When employees feel valued for their knowledge, this leads to more intrinsic motivation which contributes to a culture of engagement. In the Case Study, the leader actively solicited other people’s ideas and opinions. She valued their expertise.
- The need for autonomy. Autonomy is the sense of being in control of one’s life. From our experience, being micromanaged was often rated at the top of the list as behaviors detrimental to a team’s health. Every time we would help new leaders acclimate into a new team and would ask the team members for advice on how to be successful, “Do not micromanage” was by far the most common answer regardless of the team or industry of that leader. We labeled this category as feeling empowered. When employees felt empowered and trusted to make their own decisions, they felt more engaged. In the Case Study, the leader definitely did not micro-manage and instead reached decisions by consensus.